TRAVERSE CITY — Owen Walters is one of the lucky ones.
“It was hard for me to do things,” he said, as his mom, Terra, reached over to squeeze his hand. “It’s really hard still.”
The 12-year-old sixth-grader struggles in school. He often follows the lead of his classmates when working in groups. And he quickly stashes papers bearing grades in his backpack before anybody catches a glimpse.
It’s something he’s been doing since his first year in school, something he’ll live with for the rest of his life.
“It’s agonizing to see your child struggle so hard,” Terra said.
“It just makes me feel like I’m left behind,” Owen added. “It makes me feel dumb.”
The conversation is one Terra repeated dozens of times before anybody identified why her son had trouble learning.
Owen is dyslexic.
Picking a fight
Terra Walters and Marian Brady are no strangers to fighting for their children’s education.
The women have struggled alongside their sons while the boys fought lifelong battles with dyslexia. They struggled against a system that, they say, does little to identify students afflicted with the disorder. And it has few resources to help them succeed.
They know firsthand the heartache a parent goes through while watching his or her child flounder in school. They’ve been in all the same meetings. They’ve been handed disappointing report cards. They’ve helped their sons limp through hours of homework.
But the duo never expected to be drawn into a statewide fight for the good of all students who struggle with the common learning disability. It is a fight that landed the women in front of a small group of state legislators Monday afternoon in Traverse City.
Brady’s son, Tom, graduated from high school last year and enrolled in the DRONE program at Northwestern Michigan College this year. His dyslexia wasn’t identified until he was Owen’s age.
Walters stood to talk about her son, her experiences and how she believes two bills up for consideration in the Michigan Legislature could hurt children like Owen.
She explained that House Bill 5111 would hold in third grade any child who doesn’t pass a reading proficiency test. It’s a milestone students like Owen would likely never pass.
She explained that one in five people is dyslexic but only about 30 percent of those struggling with the learning disability have been identified. And few school programs have the expertise to teach children techniques to cope with the disorder.
The disorder tends to be hereditary, afflicting generations of the same family. Walters explained that her husband realized that he is dyslexic only after watching his son’s struggle and eventual identification.
“And we’re wondering why our children aren’t proficient in reading,” she said.
“If you don’t identify why a person cannot read, you can’t remediate it,” Brady said.
The bill, and another one, HB 5144, aim to address reading deficiencies in Michigan’s schools. The first bill requires that school boards not enroll students in the fourth grade until they’ve scored proficient on third-grade reading assessments. The second bill outlines systems to be enacted to help students achieve reading goals, but says nothing about dyslexia, she said.
Most of the parents sitting around the table at the Disability Network office Monday nodded their heads along with Walters’ arguments.
“If that had happened, then my daughter never would have gone to college,” said Vicki Norris, director of the Grand Traverse Dyslexia Association. “I feel like we’re really barking up the wrong tree. Putting Band-Aids on gaping wounds isn’t going to fix it.”
All of the parents at the table recognize that their children were the lucky ones, the ones who got the help they needed despite the system.
“Our system has failed a majority of these kids,” Norris said. “We need to fix that.”
Their children often are diagnosed with “specific learning disability,” a category of learning disorders that includes dyslexia. But few schools have instructors who have the specialized training in the Orton Gillingham Approach, the most common system used for teaching students to cope with dyslexia, Walters said.
Tom Brady struggles everyday with dyslexia.
The 19-year-old first-year student at NMC lingered for years in elementary school between passing and failing. His mom, Marian, knew something wasn’t right and she also knew specialists who thought he might have an auditory learning disorder were wrong.
“The discovery part was the worst, because we weren’t sure what we were dealing with,” she said. “Several times over the years I would ask ‘Does my son have dyslexia?’ I felt the answers weren’t there and I had to advocate for him.”
There was no reason Tom shouldn’t succeed in school. He worked harder than any of the other students in his class, but still seemed to have trouble keeping up with class material.
And he wasn’t the kind of kid who didn’t like school.
“Tom wore a shirt and tie the school every day up through the sixth grade,” Marian said.
Years of tutoring and reading therapy passed with little result. Marian recalls sitting for hours during the summertime on her front porch swing reading to Tom, the youngest of her five children, hoping that more would help.
“They said, ‘If you read to him more, it will help,’” she said.
She had the added stress of watching Tom’s twin brother progress through school work alongside other students who didn’t have trouble learning.
But eventually one teacher, when Tom was in seventh grade, noticed something.
She said, “‘You need to get Tom checked for dyslexia,’” Marian said. “That is what changed the whole thing.”
Tom was quickly identified as dyslexic and began tutoring sessions four days a week. He never quite caught up to his classmates, but found ways to learn what he had been missing before.
“A lot of people helped me along the way,” he said. “I knew it and accepted it because I knew I had the problem.”
Eventually Tom began to advocate for himself, talking to his teachers about slowing down while they explained lessons and not calling on him to read aloud. He also told them when they taught a lesson in a way he could easily understand.
Some students probably noticed that something was different about Tom, but he worked hard not to attract attention, he said.
His grades were good, but not without countless hours of extra work. And he never scored really well on reading tests.
“It was just really hard, I could just see it on his face that there was so much more to him than what those numbers are,” Marian said. “He didn’t let it get him down.”
Tom still struggles to read and talks to his college instructors at the beginning of each semester. He earns good grades, albeit probably with a little more effort than many of his classmates.
He’s gifted both athletically and mechanically, as are many dyslexics.
Today, he contends he would be one of those students held in the third grade by a law like HB 5111.
And many of Tom’s successes wouldn’t have been possible without Marian’s persistence.
“A child’s success should not depend on his mother or father’s tenacity or chance or their ability to advocate,” Marian said.
Owen Walters makes progress every day.
Since third grade, he’s been getting extra help and allowances at school that help him deal with his dyslexia. He often gets an aide to read test questions aloud and has a computer with programs that read to him.
He spends two hours each week at tutoring sessions arranged through the Dyslexia Association and paid for by his parents.
Still, he doesn’t feel comfortable working in groups at school and he struggles to advocate for himself in classes.
“I’ve been getting better grades,” he said.
“I think he needs to be proud of himself,” Terra said.
She reminds Owen that there are plenty of famous people who’ve struggled with dyslexia and succeeded, including Einstein, Steve Jobs and John F. Kennedy.
If you want to know more about dyslexia or the laws under legislative consideration, go to www.facebook.com/DecodingDyslexiaMI.
• Dyslexia is the most common cause of reading, writing and spelling difficulties. It can also affect math as our math programs are more language based then ever.
• Dyslexia is the most researched learning disability yet it is the rarely uttered as a possible cause of reading difficulties in our schools.
• Dyslexia affects 1 in 5 people or 20 percent of the population
• It is hereditary
• Only 1/3 of people who are dyslexic will be identified and will qualify for special education services. When they are identified they are identified as having "Specific Learning Disability" not as dyslexic.
• For the 1/3 identified dyslexics who receive special education services, most will not get the scientific based intervention needed for them to be successful in reading writing and spelling.
• This leaves two-thirds of dyslexics unidentified. They will struggle with reading, writing and spelling. It will affect their grades, their self esteem, it can affect their behavior, their school career and their future. These are the students who desperately need help and remediation and are not getting it because of the system.