Governor signs new law that labels dyslexia as 'primary disability'

When Raeanna Martin-Hayden was in second grade, she hated math. She became anxious that she had to answer all the questions on math facts in the allotted time.

“All the things in my brain, like how to write, got all mixed up and I forgot how to add,” said Raeanna, who is now 13.

“She never finished a quiz; she felt like a failure,” said her mother, Dana.

Learning how to guide children with learning disabilities through school can be a tough, and often scary, journey. “It’s terrifying because there are no landmarks,” said Paige Davis of Old Greenwich, whose daughter has dyslexia and other learning disabilities.

But parents say finding support and information through groups like Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities, the nonprofit organization based in Westport, can be key.

“It wasn’t until I found Smart Kids that I got concrete advice and direction,” said Marilyn Fezza, a Weston parent. While her three children started in the Weston public schools, Marilyn and her husband eventually sent them to private schools. Her children were diagnosed as “twice exceptional,” meaning they were both gifted and had learning disabilities.

The increased awareness of learning disabilities among parents helped drive state legislation in Connecticut and around the country to specifically recognize learning disabilities like dyslexia for special education services, experts say.

Gov. Dannel Malloy, an honorary board member of Smart Kids, has been open about his own learning disability. In June, he signed a law (Public Act 14-39) that identifies dyslexia as a “primary disability” for special education services and requires teacher education programs to train future teachers in dyslexia recognition and intervention. The law went into effect Jan. 1.

“It’s a long road ahead but it’s a step in the right direction,” said Margie Gillis, who heads Literacy How in North Haven and is serving on a Connecticut education department task force on dyslexia.

“This is what’s going on around the country and what’s going on in Connecticut. We finally have the ‘D word’ recognized,” she said.

“Quite frankly, schools have been reluctant to acknowledge dyslexia exists because teachers don’t have adequate training to recognize and address it.”

Wilton Public Schools

According to Ann Paul, assistant superintendent of special services, the Wilton Public Schools database is aligned with state guidelines, which will allow the district to abide by the new law and specify the number of students who are eligible as dyslexic — something the district was previously unable to do.

There are currently 232 Wilton Public School students who are eligible for special education under the category of “specific learning disability,” according to Ms. Paul. This category may include students with reading, writing or math disabilities.

Impact

The impact of this law is important, experts say. “I have worked with hundreds of families and I hear way too frequently that the school is saying the child just needs to try harder,” said Diane Willcutts, an education advocate in West Hartford.

For children with dyslexia, it’s not a question of “trying harder,” and early identification is critical. “You want to identify it [dyslexia] by halfway through first grade before the child starts suffering emotionally. … Sometimes other kids call them stupid,” said Ms. Willcutts.

By July 1, the law requires teacher education programs to train teachers to identify dyslexia and provide coursework in instructing dyslexia students with evidence-based practices.

“This can’t be done in a one-week course. It can take years,” Ms. Willcutts said. She hopes the law will encourage schools to be more focused on teachers having the training they need as well as people to oversee instruction with valid, research-based methodologies.

“If a student is identified for special education and the staff in the district doesn’t have the training, schools will have to hire a consultant or have the student outplaced to a private school that specializes in instructing for dyslexia,” she said. “Ultimately, it’s less expensive for schools to train their own staff.”

About dyslexia

About 10% to 15% of the population has dyslexia, a language-based learning disability that makes reading difficult, researchers say. Dr. Sally Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, has said as many as one in five Americans has some degree of dyslexia. Dr. Shaywitz is also serving on the state task force on dyslexia.

Rates for the diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a brain-based medical disorder, also have been rising markedly. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says 11% of school-age children have received an ADHD diagnosis.