AN OPEN LETTER TO PREMIER KATHLEEN WYNNE – STUDENTS WITH DYSLEXIA IN ONTARIO NEED YOUR SUPPORT
Dear Premier Wynne,
Congratulations on your government’s December 5th commitment to develop an education accessibility standard under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. This is an important step toward ensuring equality of education across our province and as representatives of dyslexia-focused organizations, we are pleased to see this development in Ontario.
You see, our children with dyslexia are, by definition, of average to above average intelligence but experience unexpected difficulty learning to read, spell & write. Dyslexia is a neurobiological difference that is hereditary and affects approximately 1 in 5 children in the general population. This means that in any class of 30 children, there will be 4 – 5 children who struggle to learn to read, spell & write because of dyslexia. Approximately 80% of those deemed learning disabled are students with dyslexia.
These numbers are shocking. Even more shocking is that the majority of teachers in our province are unprepared to teach reading to children with dyslexia. Children with dyslexia can learn to read but require explicit and systematic instruction utilizing a structured literacy approach (including phonological awareness, phonics, spelling, morphology, fluency, vocabulary, syntax, semantics, as well as oral and reading comprehension). However, our colleges of education do not provide teachers with the type or depth of instruction necessary to allow teachers to effectively teach reading to this large portion of students in their classrooms.
The result is evident in the government’s own statistics. EQAO reports indicate that 51% of children who failed the Grade Three literacy exam went on to fail it again in Grade Six and again in Grade Ten. Children who do not learn to read and write early on continue to fail unless we provide them with the reading instruction that works. The recent consultation report on the Provincial Demonstration Schools highlights the challenges that our public education system faces in supporting this vulnerable population effectively.
Reading is the most fundamental skill that children must acquire in order to navigate their school experience. Yet, our organizations hear regularly that parents and their children struggle to receive assessments to confirm a diagnosis of dyslexia and to obtain, on this basis, the necessary interventions that could make the difference between school failure and success for a child. If our public schools cannot teach all children to read, where are families to turn to for help? Private tutoring, where available, costs $60 – $100 per hour, completely unaffordable for the majority of families in Ontario.
The social and emotional costs of failing to intervene for a child with dyslexia are enormous. Did you know:
- Approximately 40% of children with learning disabilities experience mental health issues including anxiety and depression (Integra Program).
- A recent piece of research out of the U of T indicates that children with dyslexia are five times more likely to experience abuse (Fuller-Thomson et. al).
- Research in the U.S. and Canada suggests that our prison systems are full of people with low literacy, including many who are dyslexic. 65% of all inmates in Canada have achieved less than a grade 8 level of literacy (Literacy & Policing Project).
Consider the case of Quin as described by his mother. He is in Grade 4, has a formal diagnosis of dyslexia and his school in Ontario will not provide help for his reading and writing challenges:
“A couple days after my little man was formally diagnosed with dyslexia, I found him at the kitchen table creating this poster. “Dyslexia. It’s not a disadilatee. It’s a Super Power. For the pepole who are Dyslexik, Don’t give UP!”
My heart sang. You see just days earlier my husband and I were so worried about giving him the label of “dyslexia”. But after sitting him down and talking to Quin about all the amazingly different ways his brain works, we said the words… “and it’s called dyslexia.” His face lit up!
We were so worried about labelling him with the word “DYSLEXIA”, that it never occurred to us that he had already self labelled himself as “STUPID”. And by saying the word “dyslexia” we erased the word “stupid”.
Or so we thought. The sad reality is, nearly one year after Quin created that poster he’s back to calling himself “stupid” and “dumb”, and this time, it’s the educational system’s fault.
You see Quin’s school refuses to provide him with the proper intervention for his reading and writing, and more frustrating than that, our school board is one of the few boards that has an intervention program for kids with reading difficulties. Unfortunately, my son doesn’t have access to it. The school says that there’s not enough of a demand. This confuses me, because if the above stats are true (and they are) and Quin’s school has a population of 440 students, then surely Quin is not the only child in desperate need of a reading intervention program at his school. Children are falling through the cracks and the school system is failing them.
So, as Quin’s peers continue to excel and grow academically, my 4th grader sits stagnant at school, feeling ‘stupid’ and ‘dumb’.“
Premier Wynne, this is just one of thousands of stories of children with dyslexia who are not receiving the education that they are guaranteed to under The Education Act. As a former Minister of Education, you know that this is not fair. This is a violation of human rights guaranteed not only under The Ontario Human Rights Code, but also under The U.N. Convention on The Rights of The Child and The U.N. Convention on The Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Learning to read for a child with dyslexia is like providing an accessible ramp through the front door of a school for a child who must use a wheelchair – it is the key to ensuring that a child can access an education they deserve. This was confirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada ruling in Moore v. British Columbia (Education), 2012 SCC 61.
Premier Wynne, we are hopeful that your efforts to develop an accessibility standard for education in Ontario will address the inequities that our children face in their schools everyday. However, children with dyslexia cannot wait. We ask that you act now to ensure that:
- All children in Ontario are screened for dyslexia in Kindergarten and identified no later than the end of Grade One;
- Equitable access to early & effective intervention is provided as soon as identification happens;
- Mandatory teacher training on dyslexia & structured literacy methods is provided to all pre-service and in-service primary & elementary teachers;
- The Ontario curriculum is revised to include explicit and systematic classroom instruction in structured literacy; and
- Equitable access to accommodations & assistive technology is available for all students identified with dyslexia in Ontario.
Premier Wynne, let it be your legacy that you ensure that all children learn to read and thrive in the province of Ontario. We are happy to offer you our knowledge and expertise to ensure this occurs for the 1 in 5 students with dyslexia in our province.
Elaine Keenan, International Dyslexia Association, Ontario Branch
Annette Sang, M.S.W., Decoding Dyslexia Ontario