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Defining dyslexia: A modern dilemma

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By Kristin Stanberry

Dyslexia and education law

Public schools are guided and governed by education law. How does the law define dyslexia? Both the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Code of Federal Regulations for public education name dyslexia as one example of a specific learning disability. Let's take a closer look at the law:

Both IDEA and Federal Code (300.7) currently define specific learning disability as: "a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in imperfect ability to listen, think, write, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. This term does not include children who have learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; mental retardation; or environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage."

The conditions named in this federal law are very general, each one encompassing several specific disorders. Many educators — and most major advocacy groups — consider these legal terms and definitions outdated and impractical. So, while the law stands, the language and definitions it contains aren't always used by the very professionals to whom they apply.

Parents: Frustrated and confused about dyslexia

As you can see, dyslexia is portrayed and defined in a variety of ways — in the media, education law, medicine, science, and schools. These definitions are often inconsistent and incomplete. Many parents seeking help for their children with learning problems are understandably confused about dyslexia. Consider a comment one mother made:

"My daughter is in special education and has an IEP. I'm convinced she has dyslexia. But the resource specialist at her school says they don't even test for dyslexia!"

Parents grow frustrated with their children's school districts, when, in many cases, they're simply using different terminology than the educators they're trying to work with.

Cutting through the confusion

By now you have some context for the variety of ways the term "dyslexia" is used. How can you cut through the confusion and get help for your child? Here are some suggestions:

  • When seeking help for your child, be sure to consider the source when you hear (or don't hear) the term "dyslexia" used.
  • When communicating with your child's teachers, find out what terms they use to describe dyslexia so you can start speaking the same language. Ask specific questions, and expect specific answers.
  • Remember that the legal, medical, and scientific references to dyslexia aren't always consistent with each other. When you need to understand the details of a legal statute or research study to learn more about your child's learning difficulty, try digging deeper to learn more about the specific language processing problem being discussed.

It's likely that the media portrayal and public perception of dyslexia will remain confusing for years to come. Our advice: Don't waste time and energy reacting to what you see as misinformation in the press! Instead, invest your energy in getting the straight story from the people and resources that can directly help your child.


Reviewed 2010

Kristin Stanberry is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, education, and consumer health/wellness issues. Her areas of expertise include learning disabilities and AD/HD, which she wrote about extensively for Schwab Learning and GreatSchools.


Comments from readers

"Have you ever wondered why (d)looks like (b) or (q) looks like (p) db qp fonts that are typical to vision like Y,O,M,I,and V don`t appear backwards to a person who has Strephosymbolia , let`s just call it what it is for a change ( Everything appears Backwards)it`s just that simple, the brain is just wired that way from birth due to genetics ,the greatest school learns to addapt to the students needs (like getting books published in mirror image format) teach the teachers how to read backwards and they will be of better help to those who do read in this format, learn to accept that it is a brain thing (we just don`t see things as in what is known as the norm ) paschar"
"My son, too, has struggles with processing of language, written expression and the like. The school states he does not qualify for an IEP because his symptoms are not severe enough...yet he falls through the crack. My suggestion is to look into the Barton Reading and Spelling System. It is wonderful and should help. You would be better off to actually find a tutor that is a certified Barton instructor. Good luck and keep up the fight!"
" My family moved to New Mexico 2 years ago. My son is 7 and in the 2nd grade. He has trouble with spelling, writing, copying from the board and reading. I have been told over and over that New Mexico does not recognize dyslexia as a learning disability. They say it is a medical condition and they do not test for it. Nor do they have any help for my son. He did not qualify for special education. So, he is failing 2nd grade. I don't know how to help him. His teachers tell me to make him read things over and over. It does not seem to help. I am furious with New Mexico schools for not caring about my son's education! Help?"