October was Dyslexia Awareness Month — and as these types of months go, it was a resounding success because so much happened at the local, state, and federal level — to improve the lives of the one in five who have dyslexia.
Dyslexia is defined as “trouble with words.” It’s a hereditary neurological difference in the brain that makes it difficult to sound out, decipher, spell and write words — and it frequently creates unexpected difficulties in school for otherwise intelligent, creative, and motivated students.
Locally, the Santa Barbara Unified School District’s Board of Education reaffirmed its commitment to educating students with dyslexia by passing a resolution that “recognizes the many gifts and strengths associated with dyslexia, including entrepreneurship, creative thinking, and excellence in the arts and sports” and encourages “staff members, families, and the community to collaborate to raise awareness and understanding … to identify, treat, and prevent problems associated with dyslexia.”
The district also arranged for a poster display at La Cumbre Mall and Chaucer’s Books, and it sponsored a monthly “Dyslexia Dialogue,” featuring a showing of the documentary Embracing Dyslexia in Spanish and in English.
At the state level, Governor Jerry Brown signed the dyslexia bill, AB 1369 (cosponsored by Assemblymember Das Williams). This new legislation requires the California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, and the California Department of Education to develop guidelines for identifying, assessing, and enhancing special education services for students with dyslexia.
And at the federal level there was plenty of action: The U.S. Senate passed a resolution recognizing dyslexia; the House of Representatives passed the READ (Research Excellence and Advancements for Dyslexia) Act for $5 million in research and practical applications for dyslexia; and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tweeted out, “It’s okay to say dyslexia! Schools must identify and meet the unique/individual needs of any child with a disability.” Believe it or not, his granting permission to use the “d” word — which is so often forbidden in schools — resounded strongly throughout the education community.
And a couple of weeks later, the Department of Education issued federal guidelines to clear up any confusion among parents or educators to ensure a high-quality education for students with dyslexia: “The purpose of this letter is to clarify that there is nothing in the IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] that would prohibit the use of the terms dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia in IDEA evaluation, eligibility determinations, or IEP [Individualized Education Program] documents.”
Beyond legislation and clarification, there was additional significant dyslexia-related activity in October. Chapman University hosted its first annual Dyslexia Summit at its campus in Orange. I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend this special event that featured a videotaped introduction by Sir Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic), presentations by Ben Foss (author, inventor of the Intel Reader), and Jack Horner (paleontologist, winner of a MacArthur Genius Grant) — all of whom have dyslexia. Other panelists included researchers, educators, university administrators and students who discussed how individuals with dyslexia have so much to offer, and need to have their strengths be encouraged and supported in order to reach their full potential.
As the mother of a recent high school graduate with dyslexia, I am quite familiar with the struggles inherent in getting an appropriate education for a student with this neurological difference. Truth be told, it was a long slog through what I call “DyslexiaLand” — when we weren’t even allowed to use the word that defines the difference — much less have state-issued guidelines to help educators and administrators.
These welcome legislative changes came along too late to benefit my own son in his public school days, but they will directly benefit fully 20 percent of the population with dyslexia — as well as everyone else from now on.
And spreading awareness about dyslexia — through the accomplishments of talented individuals, information about research and technological innovations, and different ways to teach individuals with dyslexia — is always a good thing, every month of the year. There is still much work to be done in parent education, early identification, appropriate research-based reading programs, and teacher training. I invite you to join in the continuing effort to make Santa Barbara a more dyslexia-friendly community.
Cheri Rae is the director of The Dyslexia Project and the author of DyslexiaLand. She consults with parents and hosts Decoding Dyslexia meetings; the next meeting takes place at the Santa Barbara Central Library on November 18, 5:30-7 p.m. Rae also conducts Dyslexia Dialogues with S.B. school district, and the next one will be held at district offices on November 19, 5:30-7:30pm. Contact her for other meeting times, dates and locations at TheDyslexiaProject@gmail.com.