Dyslexia is far more than just difficulty learning to read. It’s become—thanks to our intentional blind eye—an issue of racial and social justice, civil rights, and prison reform too. That’s how extensive the reach and consequences of dyslexia are, and the longer we fail to provide proper tools to those for whom reading is challenge, the worse it’s going to get.
As is widely known, inmates in America are more likely to be people of color. While they comprise 37 percent of the US population as a whole, they represent 67 percent of the prison population. That’s no coincidence. In places like New York City, which has the most segregated school system in the country, many of those people of color come from economically disadvantaged schools where there are few reading specialists and even fewer teachers trained to remediate language-based learning disorders.
While the prevalence of dyslexia in the general population is around 10 percent— it’s not easy to provide an accurate figure because so many people don’t get evaluated and diagnosed—people in prison are far more likely to have dyslexia. Studies have put that figure at 48 percent. These are often the same people who – like babies with failure to thrive syndrome – have suffered from the schools’ failure to teach.
Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “universal literacy” effort, which has placed roughly 500 reading coaches across all elementary schools over the past three years, there is still no requirement that teachers have any training in recognizing or remediating dyslexia. New York state also lacks a consistent screening standard for students and gives principals discretion in their choice of a reading curriculum with little oversight by the education department.
Why? Well, one not very shocking reason is money. Diagnosing someone with any learning disability requires a neuropsychological evaluation which, if done privately, can cost thousands of dollars and is rarely covered by insurance. So people with fewer resources rely on evaluations done by the Department of Education. That can often mean that a child doesn’t get the help they need because, as former special ed teacher Fran Bowman told American Public Media, schools avoid diagnosing children with dyslexia because “once you open Pandora’s box, you have to serve those children.”
And for those who do get diagnosed, schools often recommend the services they can supply as opposed to those the students need.
There are options, but they are few and far between. As of the 2019-2020 academic year, there is only one public school in the state that caters to children with language-based learning disabilities. And while there are a few private, specialized schools, they often cost tens of thousands of dollars and have places for only about 2000 students a year. It’s estimated that another 200,000 or more need similar placements in New York alone.
Parents with little money can’t hire private tutors to help their children or retain lawyers to sue the DOE for tuition for those specialized schools. Neither can they afford to pay the school fees up front and wait for the DOE to agree to reimburse them, as some wealthier families can. Plus, it can take countless hours trying to convince school officials to provide needed services, and when they don’t or won’t, parents who have to work are not likely to be able to attend hearings.
Assemblyman Robert Carroll (D-Brooklyn), a graduate of Windward, one of the most highly regarded schools for children with language-based learning difficulties, has declared the situation a “crisis”.
“I don’t know how this is not the biggest social justice issue facing the Department of Education right now” he told The City. “The only kids who are dyslexic who are getting a good education are disproportionately upper class and white”.
There are some in the state senate who are trying to change that and have introduced bills to require the certification or training of teachers, administrators and instructors in the area of dyslexia and related disorders, and to conduct mandatory early screening for all children.
A different view:
The cost of implementing the training and screening may be worth it, and not just to the DOE. A landmark 2006 KPMG Foundation report detailed the overall costs to society that result when dyslexia is ignored. They include social costs, unemployment, consequent mental health problems and remedial programs as well as costs incurred due to antisocial behavior, such as drug abuse, early pregnancy criminal justice involvement.
So it’s not just about kids getting a fair and appropriate education – a right that’s guaranteed to all students under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It’s about teaching them the way they learn best and saving them – and us – the consequences of failing them.
Sarah Gross is a journalist and dyslexia consultant. You can find her at Dyslexia Solutions NYC