Apple’s Steve Jobs had it. So did Nelson Rockefeller, and so do Bill Gates, Anderson Cooper, Ameer Baraka, Steven Spielberg and many more leaders, scholars, authors, actors, scientists, lawyers and financiers.
Each of these famous, highly successful people has dyslexia, a condition in the brain that makes it difficult for some children and adults to read fluently.
But thousands more children with dyslexia — and one in five children have it — will go undiagnosed. Even for those with diagnoses, it will go unremarked upon, in large part because school officials have been afraid to use the word “dyslexia.”
That is about to change. Gov. Cuomo just signed into law a measure codifying federal protections permitting the words dyslexia, dysgraphia (which affects writing ability) and dyscalculia (affecting mathematical processing) to be used in determining eligibility for special education services and developing Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs. It will also require the state Education Department to develop a guidance memorandum for use by public schools in implementing these protections. Calling disorders by their proper names, which Confucius told us is “the beginning of wisdom,” will give clarity to what has been a muddled proposition in the past.
It is hoped that the new law will also spur education schools to better prepare aspiring teachers, and inform professional development programs for current teachers so they can better recognize the signs of dyslexia and related disorders and give children the help they need as soon as possible.
For dyslexics, the return to school is anxiety-producing. They struggle to read despite average to above average, or even superior, intelligence. And learning disabilities are equal opportunity abusers, affecting children regardless of race, gender or socio-economic status.
Congress began addressing this problem in 1975 with what became known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, entitling children with disabilities to a free appropriate public education. The linchpin is the IEP, where schools must describe a child’s disabling condition and develop an educational plan for the year, including any specialized services, therapies or interventions.
Because these difficulties are unexpected and often unrecognized, parents and educators may believe that with hard work, these children will simply outgrow it. The Connecticut Longitudinal Study being conducted at Yale University for 45 years tells us unequivocally that one does not outgrow dyslexia.
Some notions die hard, however. Society is conditioned to thinking that if you’re smart, you can read well — and conversely, if you can’t read, you must not be smart. The paradox is that those who are clearly intelligent nonetheless struggle to read. Many of these youngsters become highly creative problem solvers, in part because they have had to create alternative ways to cope with their disabilities.
Dyslexic students can become competent readers by using different neural pathways to read, utilizing the front of their brains — where processing is slower — instead of the back, as in non-affected students. Studies show that dyslexics use more raw energy when reading, which can further contribute to their becoming tired and frustrated.
Despite dyslexia’s prevalence in the general population, school districts across the country, including in New York, nevertheless believed they were not permitted to include the words dyslexia, dysgraphia or dyscalculia in an IEP. It was never clear why they believed that, but the result deterred schools from offering students the proper and legally-mandated support, and education schools from preparing future teachers how to recognize the problems.
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education addressed this head-on, saying “there is nothing in the IDEA that would prohibit the use of the(se) terms… in IEP documents.”
This makes good sense. No one would suggest that a visual impairment could not be described with specificity and an appropriate plan developed. Why should a child diagnosed with dyslexia be denied the same opportunity? That’s why this bill is so important.
In addition to their dyslexia, highly successful dyslexics have had one other thing in common. Someone — a parent, teacher or a boss — believed in them and encouraged them to succeed. For Ameer Baraka, who rose from a troubled youth to become a successful actor and producer, it was a GED instructor in the prison where he was incarcerated.
Because of this bill, New York’s next Ameer Baraka will have a fighting chance.
Simon is a New York State Assembly member representing Brooklyn’s 52nd District.