Good News Comes in Threes for Children with Dyslexia in NJ

During my representation of students over the years, I have dealt with several heart rendering cases in which students with Dyslexia had not been identified by their school districts until years into their school career.  In the meantime they were labeled as poor students, or mistakenly thought to have unrelated cognitive delays.  These students had either been inappropriately placed in non-college tract courses or in segregated classes for students with cognitive delays, while their only real deficit was Dyslexia.

It’s difficult to imagine how damaging an inappropriate placement and being unable to read can be to a child’s sense of self-worth and future place in the world.  Not to mention the delay in both addressing the student’s actual problem and the delay in the learning they would otherwise have achieved.  Fortunately, we were able to obtain proper services, supports and placements for these students at District expense and they eventually became competent readers with vastly increased confidence and expanded future opportunities.

This summer, the New Jersey legislature provided some strong legal advances for all children with Dyslexia, and there are positive indications that even more important supports are on the way.  Hooray for New Jersey!

In August 2013, New Jersey became one of a very few states in the nation that mandates by law that Dyslexia — as defined by the International Dyslexia Association — is specifically recognized in the state special education code as a Specific Learning Disability (“SLD”).  Adding the definition was an important change, because although “Dyslexia” was previously a possible SLD, the lack of definition often left children diagnosed with Dyslexia without services, because the more general definitions of an  SLD are often governed by vague and ever-shifting criteria.

Now, however, a child with a confirmed diagnosis of Dyslexia under the newly established legal definition has a far easier road to classification and services in New Jersey schools. The new statutory definition of Dyslexia in New Jersey is:

“a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin … characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities.  These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.” (http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2012/Bills/AL13/131_.HTM)

The second recent positive change in the law is that the state is now funding two hours of specialized training for teachers in grades Kindergarten through the Third Grade, which will focus on “screening, intervention, accommodation, and use of technology for students with reading disabilities, including dyslexia.” (http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2012/Bills/A4000/3606_U1.HTM)

The third, and still pending, change in the law may be the most important.  Now pending is a bill to actually require Districts to screen all children in Kindergarten through Second Grade for “potential indicators of dyslexia.”  (http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2012/Bills/A4000/3605_R2.HTM)

If passed into law, this latter bill would greatly increase the likelihood of early detection and corrective action for children suffering from this disability.  Early detection is the best chance to end the cycle of the type of heartbreaking cases I discussed above.

However, due to the potential costs, this bill is encountering the most resistance.

I encourage all advocates of children with disabilities to contact their state representatives and impress upon them your strong support for this last measure to be put in place.  Spread the word and encourage similar action in other states.

Had something like this been in place ten years ago, the students I described above might have avoided years of shame, self-doubt and lack of learning.

Jerry Tanenbaum

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