Stories and Grievances: Special Education
Children With Learning Disabilities Don’t Need More Opportunity to Fail by Lisa Ogburn
“We want to see what your child can really do,” the teachers tell us in the eighth-grade parent orientation meeting. “Middle school is a safe time to let your child fail.” And yes, of course, I agree. Aidan is no longer in elementary school after all, and he is not far from high school. Better to fail and learn from it now rather than later.
Children With Learning Disabilities Don’t Need More Opportunity to Fail
By LIISA OGBURN, NY TIMES
“We want to see what your child can really do,” the teachers tell us in the eighth-grade parent orientation meeting.
“Middle school is a safe time to let your child fail.”
And yes, of course, I agree. Aidan is no longer in elementary school after all, and he is not far from high school. Better to fail and learn from it now rather than later.
And yet, on many a night, I still sit with my sensitive, hard-working son who deeply wants to succeed, and help him with his homework when he asks. He’s dyslexic, meaning that his brain must work as much as five times harder to decipher symbols, translate them into sounds and then string those sounds into meaningful words. While the rest of us see a word like “comprehend,” and can sound it out and automatically pull the meaning from our auditory memory banks, it’s not so straightforward for Aidan. Dr. Sally Shaywitz of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity estimates that one in five children in the United States share Aidan’s diagnosis. Sometimes all the stars align and he decodes the unfamiliar words correctly and sometimes he does not. When several key words are misread, so, too, is the sentence, paragraph or story entirely. And this all relates to reading. Writing provides additional challenges, especially when it must be done — as most standardized tests require — without the aid of a keyboard, screen reader or spell-checker. (These tools can help level the playing field for dyslexics today.)
All that said, we are very fortunate to live in the time we do with technological aids like these and scientifically validated teaching methods for dyslexics. Furthermore, newer technologies, like functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI, enable us to see the dyslexic brain in action as it attempts to read, which in turn gives more credence to “invisible” diagnoses like this one.
Aidan’s grandfather and great-grandmother also had dyslexia, but didn’t have the benefit of a diagnosis or services. We count our blessings, indeed.
And yet there are some critical parts of our education system, like standardized tests, which are beyond our control. Often the accommodations of extra time and a quiet environment are simply not enough for dyslexics. If middle school is a safe time to see Aidan’s true performance on these, do we let him fail? Yes and no.
As working parents of three children, we must choose how best to spend our limited hours each day. When Aidan began to fail in the early grades — specifically, when there was a striking gap between his verbal intelligence and his ability to learn to read — we stepped in. We took him for testing. He received a diagnosis. For four of the last six years, we have spent a significant portion of our time and resources enabling Aidan to get private instruction, some of it partially supported through health insurance and state tax breaks. Unfortunately, unlike Britain, most states — including North Carolina, where we live — do not provide this time-intensive instruction in public schools.
We also identified those technologies and accommodations that would help him to not only not fail, but also work to his potential. But in the case of standardized tests, while he practices as best as he can, he sometimes comes close to failing. When this happens, I emphasize that standardized tests will never reflect a dyslexic’s true abilities.
Most importantly, with the remaining slivers of time, we’ve focused our sights on Aidan’s interests and strengths. Aidan is an extremely warm, creative, social, disciplined and motivated young man. Last spring in The New York Times, the physician-writer Blake Charlton, who is dyslexic, cited new research that claims that dyslexia may impart exceptional strengths in three-dimensional and spatial reasoning, as well as in creativity and big-picture thinking. Had we let Aidan fail in the early grades, we find it hard to imagine that he would be in a position now to recognize and exercise the strengths and abilities that his dyslexia may also impart.
If you see your child struggling to read and write during those early elementary years, get in there and investigate. We know so much more today about how the brain works. And soon we may also better understand how dyslexics like Thomas Edison, Charles Schwab, Albert Einstein and many others, exercised the strengths conferred by their seeming disability.
Recognize when it’s O.K. to let your child fail, and when it’s not.
Liisa Ogburn teaches documentaries at Duke University. She and Aidan share the lessons they’ve learned over the last eight years on their Web site: Dyslexic Kids.