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Geoff Johnson: Special education not a luxury for those with dyslexia

In Canada, 15% to 20% of the population has dyslexia — an estimated five million people.
While there’s no known way to correct the underlying brain abnormality that causes dyslexia, specially trained teachers may use techniques involving hearing, vision and touch to improve reading skills in children with the learning disability, writes Geoff Johnson.

New York Mayor Eric Adams recently announced details of a plan to turn around a literacy crisis in New York City, and provide additional support for thousands of children in the city’s public schools who may have dyslexia.

In doing so, Adams brought a deeply personal issue onto centre stage. The mayor has said his own undiagnosed dyslexia hurt his academic career.

School officials in New York plan to screen nearly all students for dyslexia. Eighty elementary schools and a further 80 middle schools will receive additional support for addressing the needs of children with dyslexia.

That will be a challenge, given that as many as 12 forms of dyslexia have been identified.

Here in Canada, it’s estimated that 15% to 20% of the population has dyslexia. That’s an estimated five million people, and could mean that in every classroom, there could be as many as four or five students who have difficulty reading and writing because of one form or another of dyslexia.

Despite those facts, dyslexia has, up until now, been relatively unrecognized as a serious learning disability. It does not interfere with one’s IQ, but can interfere with the method in which children learn.

Dyslexia affects the way the brain processes written materials, making it more difficult to recognize, spell, and decode words. The effects of dyslexia vary from person to person. People with the condition generally have trouble reading quickly and reading without making mistakes.

In a March 30 article entitled Right to Read, Charles Ungerleider, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, acknowledged a report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission that referenced a Supreme Court of Canada decision on Moore vs. British Columbia, in which the court held that Jeffery Moore, a student with dyslexia, was entitled to the additional special support he needed in his struggle to learn to read.

The case focused on a decision by the North Vancouver school board to close a facility that provided intensive services and individualized assistance to students with severe learning disabilities like dyslexia, thereby denying a child with severe dyslexia access to an exceptional service.

Although the school district was subject to severe funding constraints, it was found to have not acted with a bona fide and reasonable justification.

Specifically, the Supreme Court of Canada decision confirmed that special education is not a “dispensable luxury” for those with severe learning disabilities, but “the ramp that provides access to the statutory commitment to education made to all children in British Columbia.”

The court found that school districts are not justified in removing access to special education facilities simply by reason of financial difficulties, and they need to assess alternatives (financial and otherwise) reasonably available to accommodate special needs before deciding to reduce or remove a special education service.

The wider significance of that decision is that it flies in the face of the “inclusion” philosophy that has been defined as “the integration of all learners including those with severe disabilities into mainstream classes.”

The philosophy of inclusion integrates all children, specifically those with learning difficulties, and entitles them to the same educational opportunities as their peers in the least restrictive environment.

But, according to the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario, Moore vs. British Columbia challenges those involved in the provision of education to “recalibrate both their understanding of the individualized needs of students with learning disabilities and how best to provide services that give them meaningful access to an education that maximizes their potential.”

The association further points out that the Supreme Court decision confirms the court’s long-held stand that the individual needs of students require individual planning and that a continuum of services is required.

According to a Mayo Clinic paper on dyslexia, there’s no known way to correct the underlying brain abnormality that causes dyslexia. It is likely to be a lifelong problem. However, early detection and evaluation to determine specific needs and appropriate treatment can improve success.

Specially trained teachers may use techniques involving hearing, vision and touch to improve reading skills. Helping a child use several senses to learn — for example, listening to a taped lesson and tracing with a finger the shape of the letters used and the words spoken — can help in processing the information.

The good news, according to the same Mayo Clinic paper on the subject, is that children with dyslexia who get extra help in kindergarten or Grade 1 often improve their reading skills enough to succeed in elementary school and high school.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools

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