Diagnosing, treating dyslexia complicated by definitions of disorder


Dyslexia is a complicated topic in the state of Kansas. Even though one in five people have been diagnosed with dyslexia, according to the Fundamental Learning Center, Kansas does not recognize it as its own category of learning disability in the school system.

“Dyslexia is a learning disability that can hinder a person’s ability to read, write, spell and sometimes speak,” said Mary Belvin, director of Children Services at the Fundamental Learning Center in Wichita. “We say it’s a glitch in the brain on a phonological level.”

Dyslexia has a wide spectrum and cannot be seen, which can cause many people to be confused about the disability. People with dyslexia struggle with processing and interpreting language. It is not a visual impairment or an indicator that a person is stupid or stubborn.

“The individuals are often very talented and it has nothing to do with IQ, but they struggle with language,” Belvin said.

People with dyslexia often have a hard time distinguishing between certain letters or spelling a word out loud. This is because the the brain stores, processes or retrieves language incorrectly.

“With my dyslexia … it’s unconscious,” John Shaver, freshman in electrical engineering, said. “Like, I’ll think the right letter, and it will be the wrong one. I switch ‘B’s and ‘P’s around, and fives and capital ‘F’s … ‘Republic’ is a really hard word (for me) to spell.”

Unintended consequences

Since signs of dyslexia are not physical, parents and teachers may not realize their child has a language disorder.

“I got detention once for not being able to pass spelling,” Shaver said.

He said one day before school, his dad made him stay in the car until he could spell a word correctly.

He didn’t leave for 15 minutes.

“I think it was fifth grade by the time my parents got me tested,” Shaver said.

When he was tested, it was for spelling problems, not dyslexia, Shaver said. They didn’t know dyslexia was the problem, he said. Neither his parents, teachers nor fellow classmates understood the real reason behind his trouble with spelling.

Today, years later, Shaver said his dyslexia can trip him up sometimes.

“Like even today … I was writing out my (math) homework, and there were several times where I had to erase a random ‘F,’” Shaver said.

No two cases the same

Dyslexia does not look the same in everyone, said Andrea Blair, director of the Student Access Center.

“You could have dyslexia, and your problem is just fluency,” she said. “You are very slow … it’s just very laborious, while I could have dyslexia and have trouble figuring out what a word means. The most consistent thing are the inconsistencies.”

Federal education aid

Dyslexia can be difficult to treat in schools because the state of Kansas does not specifically recognize dyslexia as its own disorder. Instead, Kansas classifies it under the umbrella term “learning disability,” Blair said.

“In Kansas, we never use the word dyslexia,” Blair said. “Dyslexia is kind of a term that is used interchangeably with learning disabilities and language-based skills such as reading and writing … Maybe the easiest thing to do is to look at dyslexia as a subcategory of a learning disability.”

Procedures about how schools deal with dyslexia differ from state to state. The federal government requires states to accommodate students with certain disabilities, and offers grants to states to provide the services.

One of the disabilities provided for by the government is “specific learning disabilities,” which is the category dyslexia typically falls under. If the state wants to implement services that specifically address dyslexia, the money can come from the larger grant, but the financial burden for any dyslexic aid often fall to the states or other entities.

“(Dyslexia is) not a federal category of a disability,” Blair said. “You’re not going to get funding from the federal government.”

However, each state can provide additional assistance to students with dyslexia, if they chose to.

“The states have to do what the feds say, but they can do their own thing,” Blair said. “So, one of the things Texas does is dyslexia.”

Some states, such as Texas and Louisiana, have identification and intervention laws for students with dyslexia, while others, like Kansas, do not.

Belvin said that the state of Kansas should provide more specific help for students with dyslexia.

“The best thing is for a student to receive therapy from a trained academic language therapist who teaches a multi-sensory structured language program,” Belvin said.

This means that the student receives language input in many different ways —through hearing, seeing and writing. This kind of intervention gives a student with dyslexia more exposure to the skill they are working on, something that usually can’t be done in the typical classroom.

“Teachers will be able to realize that the children aren’t reading well, but they might not have the tools to recognize (dyslexia),” Belvin said. “They might think it’s developmental. (Students) might get some help in special ed, but it’s not the right help.”

She said that once children enter fourth grade, they begin reading to learn, and that reading transfers into every subject. Letting a dyslexic child slip by could have a major impact on their education, Belvin said.

Social stigma

Blair said that students often do not want to be identified by the term “disability” because it comes with a social stigma. The term “dyslexia” is one way to get around that, Blair said.

“(Students think) ‘It has the word disability in it, I must be stupid,'” Blair said. “It’s so much easier for a student to say, ‘I have dyslexia.”

Blair said that if a child has problems, she wants them helped regardless of what the name is called. The goal is not about the label, but about helping every student.

“We probably have close to 350 students who have provided us with documentation of dyslexia and or learning disabilities,” Blair said.

K-State and dyslexia

Accommodations for students with dyslexia at K-State include more time for exams and audio versions of textbooks. Again, Blair said she isn’t necessarily concerned with terms.

As providing accommodations to college students, I don’t care what it’s called … I’m gonna help you,” Blair said.

For Shaver, dyslexia is something his lives with, but doesn’t let define him or limit his potential.

“It’s never something I’ve had to think about before, I’ve just always dealt with it,” Shaver said. “Nothing more than a mere annoyance.”