A Waterloo Region Library speaker series is aiming to raise awareness of dyslexia and the challenges faced by those who live with it.
The three-part series has already featured Valdine Björnson, founder of the reading and learning clinic in Winnipeg. It will also feature a virtual event with Risha Conroy, founder of the New York-based Dyslexia Alliance for Black Children (November 8 at 7 p.m.), and a presentation by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) Branch of Ontario at the Elmira library on November 14, also at 7 p.m.
According to IDA Ontario president Alicia Smith, dyslexia is the most common reason that people struggle with learning to read.
“It’s a specific difficulty that can sometimes be a disability in word reading, writing and spelling,” Smith said, adding the idea that people with dyslexia see letters backwards is a common misconception.
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“In order to be able to see words and identify them instantly, there are connections that you have to form in the brain. Dyslexia is a brain-based difference in that those connections that allow for that instant word recognition are much more difficult to form for people with dyslexia,” she explained.
Nobody is born with these connections, Smith said.
“Everyone has to rewire their brain a little bit so that they can learn to read, but for individuals with dyslexia, just because of the structure of the brain, it is much more difficult for them to form the connections.”
As the key to treating dyslexia is high-quality reading instruction, the IDA is working to get teachers across the province trained to be able to provide that instruction.
“So that it happens at school instead of happening outside of school. And currently, the big problem is that it’s not happening in school. Parents are having to turn to private tutors to get additional instruction for their kids. That’s very costly and it becomes a massive equity issue.… It really could be delivered within the public education system,” she said.
Although dyslexia occurs across all races and socioeconomic classes, Conroy explained that unconscious biases can make it more difficult for Black children to be diagnosed with it. These biases happen when teachers have lower expectations for Black students.
“What we know from the research is that expectations for some students are lower. It’s part of our implicit biases. So because of that, many educators may not expect that a child is going to read at grade level. And so when the child is having difficulties, no one questions whether or not that child has dyslexia,” she explained.
“So if you’re not looking for dyslexia, if you’re not aware that it exists across all races and ethnicities and your expectations of certain students from certain backgrounds is lower, you’re not going to be able to identify it.”
Not being diagnosed with dyslexia can not only lead to the student not getting the support they need, it can lead to challenges later in life, said Conroy.
“What are the outcomes for a student with dyslexia who doesn’t receive appropriate instruction or intervention? The outcomes are disproportionately negative.”
It also impacts the way people feel about themselves, Conroy said.
“Because they have experienced a lot of trauma, they haven’t had access to places that would allow them to get a job or to even feel good about themselves. And when you’re walking into a classroom… you have to be a reader in order to access the curriculum, and they’re sitting there reading, unable to do that, even though they’re trying really hard. It takes a lot more effort and labour to read. When you do have dyslexia, it impacts the way you feel about yourself.”
Children need evidence-based reading instruction, Conroy said.
“So you’re starting every child off with what they need in order to become proficient readers. And so this allows you to see who needs extra help, and allows you to see where they’re not getting it…. We want to have consistent practices in the way [teachers] identify students.”
According to Björnson, dyslexia affects a higher percentage of the population than people realize.
“It is, depending on the definition and the language that we were born in, particularly English, it’s 15 to 20 per cent, and that’s much higher than autism. People tend to know some of these other kinds of disabilities, but they don’t recognize something that’s even more prevalent in our population,” Björnson said.
Björnson has studied the impact that dyslexia has on adults who have it. Many did not find out they have the condition until university, she explained.
“They looked back on their K-12 [experience] and some of them are really angry. … They kind of labelled themselves as not capable and even worse self-describing words like stupid, because they just felt that that’s the only reason that they’re not picking up this reading and spelling thing.”
The challenge is that much of life is based on literacy skills, she added.
“An 18-year-old said to me that she didn’t want to go to the grocery store because she couldn’t read the labels. She was fired from a position because she couldn’t fill out the forms that they were asking her to fill out.
“I liken it to if I asked you to sing all day and you had to read music all day, would you be able to kind of demonstrate your capabilities? We’re asking people to kind of go with something that’s not their inclination all day, when they could show it in a much different way and maybe shine in fact, maybe be more insightful than others that have the natural ability to read and write,” she said.
Dyslexia is treatable, Björnson stressed.
“We can do something about it.”
More information about this series and other RWL program can be found online at www.rwlibrary.ca.