Illinois puts more focus on dyslexia

In preschool Lucas Baronello of Antioch had difficulty learning the alphabet, even though his mother Angela faithfully read to him every day and tried to teach him. In kindergarten, Lucas dreaded going to school, and by first grade he complained of daily headaches and stomach pains.

Lucas, 10, has dyslexia, but he wasn’t formally diagnosed until the end of first grade—missing out on much-needed services. About 20 percent of people in the United States have dyslexia—a language processing disorder — but the disability is often misunderstood and services are lacking, Baronello says.

Getting help for Lucas from the school system was a battle. Baronello quickly realized she wasn’t alone. “I kept talking with people who had children with dyslexia. Their kids just weren’t getting the appropriate services in school.”

Baronello, and others who have joined the national movement Decoding Dyslexia (which aims to raise awareness of the learning disability) hope all this will soon change. New legislation now includes dyslexia in the Illinois education code and is expected to help by identifying dyslexia as a learning disability. It also establishes an advisory board to develop teacher and school administrator training for teaching students with dyslexia.

“Many people throughout history have achieved greatness in spite of the comprehension challenges faced with dyslexia,” Gov. Pat Quinn said in an email. “Everyone learns in a different way and it is our duty to make sure those with challenges receive the education they deserve.”

The new legislation also is expected to help with early diagnosis.

Parents of children with dyslexia understand how crucial it is for children to be diagnosed as early as possible. If children do not receive services early enough, they could fall behind for the rest of their school career, Baronello says. Though Lucas was showing signs of dyslexia—speech delay, trouble learning letters, unhappy at school—in preschool, the school system didn’t test Lucas. The Baronellos did.

“We were lucky his father and I were persistent. Many don’t find out what is going on until third or fourth grade when they are so far behind the school can’t ignore it anymore, or worse, they never find out,” says Baronello.

For years Kathi Keane of Grayslake fought for help for her daughter Grace, who just finished fifth grade.

“It was just horrible kindergarten through third grade,” says Keane. “I suspected it since she was in first grade but I had pushback from the school. Finally in third grade she had failed enough that they had decided they would test her.” By the end of the third grade, Grace was placed on an Individualized Education Plan, but Keane insists the interventions weren’t working. “They didn’t want to recognize the dyslexia problem,” says Keane.

School district officials say, however, they cannot diagnose dyslexia and they couldn’t provide services unless students are found eligible in one of the 13 categories of learning disabilities in Illinois. Until now, dyslexia was included under “specific learning disability” for understanding and using language, not a learning disability. The new legislation should help provide clarity to the issue, says Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education.

“We’ll be able to put more of a focus on dyslexia.”

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