Although 20% of students are estimated to have dyslexia, it is only diagnosed in less than 4%. This chasm can swallow lives. Students with dyslexia are twice as likely to drop out of school, and an estimated 70% of juvenile delinquents have this learning difference. Approximately 80% of adults in the prison system are estimated to be functionally illiterate.
On Tuesday, a panel of New York politicians, non-profit leaders, and advocates came together at Columbia University to discuss solutions for the problem of reading disability in American and across the world.
New York City mayor Eric Adams was the symposium’s lead speaker, and he touted his administration’s efforts, announced this spring, to catch and treat dyslexia while children are still young. Now, nearly all students will be screened for dyslexia, teachers will receive training, and 80 elementary and 80 middle schools will receive additional support to help dyslexic students. Adams described this as “the most comprehensive approach to identifying not only dyslexia, but other learning disabilities.”
But the mayor also said that it was important to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
“The goal is to start,” he said. “This is just the iPod. We’re going to get to the iPhone.”
Adams, whose own dyslexia was not diagnosed until after he left the New York City public school system, emphasized that his attendance meant that the issue was personal for him.
“I wanted to come in and show my visible support instead of just sending a staffer,” he said. “This is paramount for our administration.”
There are also efforts to help those who may have gone undiagnosed and seen their choices in life narrow as a result. New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams promoted his legislation to offer dyslexia screenings to all detainees on Riker’s Island, where according to Adams’ estimate, 30-40% of the inmates are dyslexic. Adams described the screenings as “something we’re going to be rolling out,” but the bill has not yet passed. Another panelist, Chris Etienne, the STEM program coordinator for Princeton University’s Prison Teachings Initiative, emphasized that even students in prison who do have diagnosed learning disabilities often don’t have access to the educational supports that they need. According to Williams’ bill, the Department of Corrections would be required to treat inmates who are diagnosed with learning disabilities, but the specifics are sketchy.
The symposium was organized by Neuralign, a non-profit that seeks to help dyslexic children by gamifying the process of learning to read. Ingrid Poupart, Neuralign’s CEO, announced a report from the Center for Applied Cognitive Research at Carleton University that showed that students using Neuralign were reading about 50% more words in ten weeks than before using the program. The potential for technology to deliver game-changing results was a recurring theme of conversation, although it was uncertain how these efforts would be included in the plans of New York or any other state. Eli Weissman, a technologist at contXtual, a metaverse company discussed plans to bring Neuralign’s content to virtual reality, which he described as having massive potential for students with learning differences.
All the talk of technology led to discussion of deeper root problems, prompted by Etienne. Etienne pointed out that, as helpful as programs like Neuralign may be, they’re delivered digitally, and many people don’t have reliable access to broadband and laptops. The problem is worse, he noted, for the incarcerated.
Even if students are diagnosed with dyslexia and offered remediation, this still may not be enough, according to panelist Dean Bragonier, founder of NoticeAbility, a non-profit that helps dyslexic students find their strengths and build self-esteem. Bragonier, who is dyslexic, discussed the psychological difficulty of feeling that he was stupid and didn’t “deserve a seat at the table.” It’s important, Bragonier said, to realize that there’s a silver lining to dyslexia—that dyslexia often comes with its own intellectual strengths.
Speaking before his early exit, Williams said that he had high hopes for the panel’s impact—that it could drive desperately needed investment. But at times, it was difficult to see how it was going to help. Panelists spoke about the problems broadly and did not discuss the specifics of solutions or how they might be paid for. At times, the discussion felt like a vehicle for stakeholders to praise the Adams administration and to promote their own efforts. There was plenty of lofty, truthful rhetoric about the importance of diagnosing and helping dyslexic students, but little in the way of practicalities. The importance of the cause is certain, but exactly who is benefiting the most from this conversation is somewhat less clear.
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com.