Getting Accommodations for Dyslexia: Writing by
Speaking and Reading by Listening
All May Read
While "a rising tide raises all ships" the tide of technology is dramatically changing the fate of students with dyslexia, pulling them from the darkness of slow inadequate visual reading and sweeping them to the top of a wave alongside their peers. These new technologies that make Writing by Speaking (or Oral Writing) and Reading by Listening (or Aural Reading) possible means that anyone who can understand spoken language can independently "read" that same print language aurally, at 250 to 350+ words per minute with good comprehension. Anyone who can speak to tell a story, to answer a question, or to explain how to do a job or how to solve a problem can also produce a written document giving that same information at 100 to 170+ words per minute by speaking. With our current technology, people, who in the past, were limited by a print disability can now be empowered to rapidly and effortlessly use print for work, play, reading, and writing. However, only a few of the many students with dyslexia are told that they are eligible to use these technologies in school as part of reasonable accommodations.
Before disabilities like dyslexia were known, all students were required to learn and function in the same way. That requirement was thought to be fair and the only way things could be done. However, in the 1970's, there was a growing awareness that individuals with disabilities could learn, master skills, and function often as well or better than their non-disabled peers, when they were permitted to perform the same tasks in a different way. Joe Stutts a laborer with dyslexia, was denied an opportunity to become a heavy equipment operator. He sued the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), was found to be above average in mental ability and able to do the job, but unable to read an aptitude test required for that promotion. The ruling said that TVA was in violation of the law by not providing Joe Stutts with reasonable accommodations. This ruling and others made it clear that individuals with reading disabilities have a right to accommodations so they will have an equal opportunity for learning and employment. It established that failing to provide reasonable accommodations was a way of discriminating against individuals because of their disability and against the law. Regulations were enacted and these protections were extended to students in school.
What are we Waiting For?
If the technology is available and students with reading disabilities have a right to accommodations, why do some students not get an opportunity to use the technology that will help them overcome their disability, and why are they denied accommodations that would let them learn the skills that are being taught? A full answer is beyond the scope of this article, but a primary reason that these support services are not in wide use is because of a lack of understanding of: the nature of dyslexia, the need for accommodations, and the law requiring those accommodations. This article focuses on what a parent, advocate, or student can do to combat these problems and get the assistive technology and accommodations that are needed.
Missing the Mark
There are three reasons that eligible students with dyslexia are not receiving accommodations and assistive technology that they need:
(1) If the student does have special education support under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the teachers are not aware of the importance of accommodating for a reading disability and continue to offer remediation only for reading problems. Except for read-aloud testing, the accommodations/modifications provided--lowered standards, more time to complete tasks, repeat and clarify, etc.--are more appropriate to students who are intellectually challenged.
(2) If the student has a reading disability but because of the changes in regulations for special education does not meet the guidelines for learning disability in the area of reading, often the school is reluctant to (or refuses to) consider a "504 plan" that would provide the student with protection from discrimination because of the disability and offer accommodations to remove the barriers that that disability causes.
(3) Generally, teachers, administrators, and parents have a poor understanding of the nature of dyslexia, the need for accommodations, and the assistive technology systems that can enable students to read, aurally, at 250 to 350+ words per minute with good comprehension and write, at 100 to 170+ wpm by speaking, without spelling or typing. As a result, well-intentioned efforts "miss the mark".
Note: Without a 504 plan (Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973) or an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), students cannot get accommodations they need such as read-aloud: testing for the state proficiency tests and American College Testing (ACT) tests, teacher handouts, end of course tests; special audio textbooks; etc.
Problems getting information about 504 plans
When a student is found to be eligible for special education services, the information about how to receive those services is readily available to parents inquiring about accommodations or other help. The law requires that schools tell parents that assistive technology is part of special education services. On the other hand, most parents and teachers never hear about 504 plans. Information about the support available through 504 plans is not widely disseminated, and in some schools, administrators direct teachers who know about 504 plans not to mentioned these support services to parents, unless the parents ask specifically about "504".
For more information about Free Appropriate Public Education for Students With Disabilities: Requirements Under Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 go to: http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/edlite-FAPE504.html.
Misinformation about Remediation
Some teachers, usually special education teachers aware of the opportunities that assistive technology systems offer, initiate programs in their schools and provide many of the services needed for Writing by Speaking and Reading by Listening. However, for a number of reasons, the overwhelming majority of special education students who could benefit from using these systems will not get a chance to use them. Primarily, this is because, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the prevailing belief is that remediation for reading will lead to adequate reading in the future and accommodations for reading will not be needed. As Sally Shaywitz points out "...reading remains effortful, even for the brightest people with childhood histories of dyslexia."
A level playing field through a 504 plan
Special education Individual Education Plans (IEP) for students with reading disabilities are responsible for providing both remediation for the reading problem and accommodations and protection from discrimination. On the other hand, 504 plans are not responsible for providing remediation for the disability, they can only provide for accommodations and protection from discrimination. For example, in the case of students in wheelchairs: students that may not require special education services are physically blocked from getting access to school experiences, so 504 plans remove those barriers by providing for ramps into the school. The 504 plans do not provide therapy to help these students learn to walk. In the same way, for students with print disabilities their access to school experiences, print, is blocked because of their disability. A 504 plan would not provide for teaching these students to read, but a 504 plan could remove the barrier caused by the reading disability by providing accommodations and protection from discrimination. For students with a reading disability the "ramp" into the school is audio books, screen readers, read-aloud testing, other Writing by Speaking and Reading by Listening systems, and the other reasonable accommodations needed to enable them to have full access to print and to the same quality of educational instruction as their intellectual peers have. Clearly, these accommodations are not a way of providing an advantage for the student with a disability. They are a way of removing the disadvantage caused by the barrier. Their objective is not to provide an advantage, just a level playing field.
Average has Nothing to Do with it
When it comes to students with disabilities, most educators have grown accustomed to special education which focuses on remediating areas of weakness. In providing this remediation, the goal has been getting the student to be average in their area of weakness. The mindset has been " average is what we are working for," and this objective worked well when talking about remediation. However, this objective does not work when we are talking about "access to experiences that the person can profit from." If the student can profit from taking an advanced placement class in physics, but he/she is denied access to that class because of a reading disability, average has nothing to do with it. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/hq5269.html) the goal is that the student will,"...attain educational benefits equal to that of non-handicapped students." The goal does not say anything about average. The law does demand equal opportunities by removing barriers-thus preventing discrimination because of the disability, and providing reasonable accommodations. It does say that students will have equal opportunities by having barriers removed, discrimination stopped, and reasonable accommodations provided.
Students with a reading disability may be bright and able to do average work in the classroom without reading the textbook, but this does not mean that they have an equal opportunity to attain educational benefits. If they have above average ability, they should have an equal opportunity to perform at the same above average skill level as other students who have above average ability. Instead of asking if our student is doing average work, we should be asking, "Is our student doing the same level of work as other students with the same aptitude?" (as indicated by IQ scores and other data). These equal opportunities apply to a welding class, a standard science class, an advanced literature class, a chance to earn a scholarship with a high score on the ACT, or any other opportunity that a non-handicapped student has. It's not about having average skills, it's about having equal opportunities.
Often the terms accommodation and modification are used to mean the same thing, but the two words mean very different things for students with disabilities:
Definition of Modifications: The changing of standards which determine that a student has mastered a skill in a core subject.
For students who have difficulty with vocabulary, comprehension, and general learning ability, lowering the "bar" (or standards) for skills in Science, Social studies, etc. makes sense, so they can master the "basics" of a subject, using modified grading, easier work sheets, easier test questions, etc.
Definition of Accommodations: Providing the support to keep a disability from limiting a person's access to experiences that the person can profit from.
Bright students with dyslexia (or print disabilities) can profit from the experience of using standard textbooks, literature, magazines, worksheets, newspapers, and other print language, as well as or better than most students in their classes, when they get the support (assistive technology) that will give them access to that printed material for oral writing and aural reading. This is solely what a student with a reading disability needs, "access to experiences that [they] can profit from". This is in no way modifying the material in the school curriculum. Bright students with reading disabilities need the rich language experience that they can only get from a standard or advanced curriculum.
It is not unusual for well-meaning teachers to offer modifications (such as those described above) in an attempt to help bright students with reading disabilities, but modifications and lower expectations for academic work harm these students. What they need are accommodations and high expectations for academic work. While modifications are an option under special education, modification of standards are not an option under section 504. The U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights specifically says that under section 504, handicapped students must demonstrate "...the academic and technical standards requisite for admission to, or participation in, the ... education program or activity." Therefore, for bright students, it is important that parents or other student advocates request full accommodations, and direct that, in the early years, no modifications of standards be made in the academic curriculum.
Requesting Accommodations forWriting by Speaking and Reading by Listening Systems
The prevailing methods for teaching students with reading disabilities do not include the assistive technology systems that can enable students to make full use of print for reading and writing. Therefore, all but a few teachers and principals are unaware of the existence of these systems. They also are not aware that discrimination is occurring within the school program when students with print disabilities are expected to perform reading and writing tasks without accommodations for their reading and writing inadequacies. For students to receive the accommodations they need for their print disability, both awareness and perceptions must change.
In the future, all schools will routinely provide the needed support so that students with print disabilities will use the latest technology for reading and writing and will receive accommodations that will let them learn to their ability. But, until that time comes, most students with a reading disability will need a parent, teacher, or other advocate who will take the lead, request the needed support, and participate in the implementation of the accommodations.
Commitment, Persistence, and Patience
Teachers and administrators want to help your child; they want to treat all students fairly; they want students to have equal opportunities for learning. But too often, their way of accomplishing this is to treat all students the same way, expecting students to complete their work and to learn in the same way. Most teachers find that this equal treatment doctrine works well for them, and they believe it works well for their students. There are disabilities that teachers quickly make exceptions for, like blindness. Teachers will easily see that a student without sight needs to have content presented in a different way and be allowed to complete their work in a different way, yet still be expected to learn the same skills as other students with their same mental ability. While it's easy to understand that there is a need for an exception with a person who is not sighted, is more difficult for the average teacher and administrator to understand that a student who is experiencing dyslexia has virtually the same barriers to reading and writing as does a person who is blind. Dyslexia is sometimes called "A Hidden Disability," so there is no wonder that teachers have difficulty understanding this disability. With the best of intentions, teachers and administrators usually cling to their "treat everyone the same" doctrine and see no reason to change this approach when it comes to a student who is a slow and inadequate reader and writer. These deep-seated beliefs are persistent even in the face of overwhelming evidence showing that slow and inadequate visual reading and writing are independent of learning ability, are disabilities, and are barriers to learning. For that reason, when asking for recognition of the disability, accommodations for the disability, and programming that will ensure that the student will not be blocked from learning because of the disability, patience is needed in equal measure with persistence, and commitment.
Teachers and administrators may not "get it" at first, but it doesn't mean that what is being asked for is not needed, and it doesn't mean that the request should be withdrawn. When the request is made in writing, any oral discussion that reflects lack of understanding of what is needed can be disregarded with the knowledge that the written response on the part of the school is what counts, and usually a written response will come only after a sober and thoughtful examination of the request has been made. If that written response does not meet the child's need, a parent has a responsibility to disagree.
For more on this, see The Civil Rights of Students with Hidden Disabilities Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 <http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/hq5269.html> and <http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/edlite-FAPE504.html>
Getting the Help Your Child Needs may be up to You
Be aware of your child's rights. There are two kinds of programs available for helping students who have disabilities. One of them, widely known and readily communicated to teachers and parents, is special education programs for students with learning disabilities in the area of reading. Teachers and administrators may not know about the technology for providing accommodations, but there will be no question about eligibility for these accommodations when students are special education eligible. For these students, the next step will be requesting and getting the oral writing and aural reading accommodations that are needed.
However, in the last few years, changes in the regulations governing special education services has resulted in excluding many, if not most, capable students who have reading disabilities. The students did not change, the rules changed, and now many, if not most, students with reading disabilities are not eligible for special education support as learning disabled. The theory is that they will get their special needs met through the regular school program instead of through the special education program. This regular education model for delivering services could be a better way of an accommodating capable students with reading disabilities, if these oral writing and aural reading accommodations were being provided. Unfortunately, in most school systems, only students who have a parent or other advocate who make specific requests for these accommodations will receive a plan for the needed support. In most cases, school systems cling to the belief that students who are slow readers just need to work harder and accept the results they get with their inferior visual reading. These students, who were or would have been considered learning-disabled under special education a few years ago, still have disability; they still need to have their disability recognized, and they still need accommodations so that their disability will not hold them back. So, how can you get accommodations for a student with a reading disability who does not meet special education guidelines for learning disability?
The 504 Overview
Students with reading disabilities who have been denied special education support can get these accommodations with a "504 plan". Most parents and most teachers are not aware that students with reading disabilities are eligible to receive a "504 plan" if they have a disability and if they need accommodations for that disability. Some school administrators have pointed out that "504 plans are unfunded mandates", indicating that they have a disincentive for using "504 plans" because they must use money from their general budget to fund these programs. Some school systems only offer these plans when parents provide documentation of the reading disability. So, how do you make these requests for accommodations?
Parents or other student advocates need to be informed about the laws that mandate reasonable accommodations: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. Also, they need to make a formal request in writing to the school principal that reasonable accommodations be provided to this student under a 504 plan.
There are school principals who do an exemplary job of providing these accommodations. In their schools, the process may start with a parent-teacher discussion, progress to a meeting where the student's needs for accommodations are discussed, and result in the establishment of a 504 plan providing the accommodations needed, without delay. However, in most schools, it is likely that this process will get "sidetracked" or the request for accommodations might get denied at first. In these cases the parent advocate has a key role in providing the leadership that will result in the students disability being accommodated through a 504 plan.
Putting Leadership into Action
If the school does not already recognize the problem and provide accommodations, leadership is needed for having a disability recognized, for having school personnel learn how to use assistive technology systems, and for having these systems incorporated into the regular classroom.
Below are some suggestions for parents who need to take on the leadership role and advocate for accommodations that their students need.
* Keep yourself focused and prepare a written list of requests to ask of the school personnel so they will understand clearly what you're asking for.
* Ask that your requests be written and be sure that your requests become part of the student's written record. As a school attorney used to say, "If it wasn't written it didn't happen".
* Avoid getting entangled in discussions about how the school will put into practice what is needed. While the school staff should not be engaging a parent in a discussion of their difficulties implementing services, it happens. It is okay for parents to listen to this discussion and understand the school's problems, so long as the parent can stay focused on getting an appropriate answer to their questions regarding their child's need for the accommodations and not become sidetracked.
* In an IEP meeting or a 504 meeting that asks for accommodations, the discussion should answer five questions, in this order:
(1) Does my student have a disability (under special education or under ADA/section 504)?
(2) Does my student's disability limit his ability to benefit from instructional activities which are afforded to nondisabled students with is same level of intellectual aptitude?
(3) Will my student be able to receive accurate measures of what he has learned by receiving accommodations on testing such as state proficiency testing and American College Testing (ACT)?
(4) What accommodations does my student need to get a Free Appropriate Public Education?
(5) How will a 504 plan (or IEP) be implemented to provide the needed accommodations?.
The first of these five questions is most critical.
* Plan to or be prepared to have a psychoeducational evaluation report (or a neurological evaluation report) as evidence to be considered when addressing the first question:
(1) Does my student have a disability (under special education (IDEA) or under ADA/section 504)?
This independent report will not be necessary if the school indicates that your child meets the current guidelines for learning disability in the area of reading or if the school recognizes that your child has a disability and will receive protection under a 504 plan, and you will be ready to move on to question number two.
* However, if the school indicates that your child does not meet special education guidelines, then it's likely that they will also assume that your child is not meet the guidelines under section 504. A psychoeducational evaluation report from an outside agency will give you independent information about what your child needs and what your child is eligible for in the school system. Such a report can cause a change in a decision about special education eligibility, but more likely, it can establish that there is a disability under section 504 regardless of whether it meets special education guidelines or not. You may have a right to have this independent evaluation paid for by the school system. if the school denies your request for this evaluation, you may choose to have this evaluation done on your own to ensure that your child is understood and will receive the needed accommodations.
* If your independent evaluation indicates that your child does not have a disability for reading that would warrant accommodations, you will have confirmation of what the school has decided, and you would not need to address questions (2), (3), (4), and (5).
* Once your student has been recognized as a person with a disability (under 504 or IDEA), then the next step is to address the following two questions:
(2) Does my students disability limit his ability to benefit from instructional activities which are afforded to nondisabled students with the same level of intellectual aptitude?
(3) Will my student be able to receive accurate measures of what he has learned by receiving accommodations on testing such as state proficiency testing and American College Testing (ACT)?
* Ask the school to learn about the oral writing and aural reading systems that can enable a student to read, aurally, at 250 to 350+ words per minute with good comprehension and to write, at 100 to 170+ wpm by speaking. Learn about other assistive technology systems that can accommodate your child for other weaknesses related to dyslexia. Learn about universal design features built into many devices that can let your student complete tasks and learn in a way that is best suited for him or her. A source for much of this information is: DyslexiaTech.com, and AudioExamCreator.com.
* Learn about the reasonable accommodations for testing, daily classwork, etc. that can remove the barriers to learning and success for your child. If you need to, remind others you are not asking for an advantage for your child, but simply a "level playing field."
* Once your child's disability is recognized by the school and there is a special education plan or a 504 plan in place, as for an assistive technology evaluation by someone knowledgeable of oral writing and aural reading systems. This evaluation should address the fourth question:
(4) What accommodations does my student need to get a Free Appropriate Public Education? This evaluation should lead to a plan that includes assistive technology equipment and training, a plan for implementation of the systems in the classroom and at home, and a plan for ensuring that all needed accommodations are provided.
* A written plan (504 or IEP) will address the last question:
(5) How will a 504 plan (or IEP) be implemented to provide the needed accommodations?
* This written plan for providing accommodations will have periodic reviews for evaluating its effectiveness and the need for adjustments based on new information and changing needs. Plan to participate in the monitoring, evaluation, and adjusting of the plan.