Can you say ‘dyslexia?’ Family works to change disability laws

(L-r) Lt. Gov. Cassy Keagle, Matthew Sligh, Betsy Sligh, Michelle Sligh, Matt Sligh and Senator Majority Leader Bill Cowsert pose for a photo Feb. 7.

Sixth grader Betsy Sligh met with Secretary of State Brian Kemp Feb. 7 to address the need to add the word “dyslexia” to Georgia State law.

Shellie Smitley

A local family is fighting to add the word “dyslexia” to the vocabulary of Georgia lawmakers and educators.

Lake Oconee Academy students Betsy and Matthew Sligh traveled to the State Capitol Feb. 7 to explain to legislators what it is like for dyslexic children to attend Georgia public schools. They are working with their parents, Matt and Michelle, to urge government officials to enact state laws that screen and protect students. Currently, federal disability laws acknowledge the need for special accommodations, however, Georgia is one of 14 states that have no laws that specifically name and define the disorder. The family is part of a local group called “Decoding Dyslexia Georgia.” They recently joined the state organization that is connected to a national grassroots movement.

Senator Majority Leader Bill Cowsert escorted the brother-and-sister team to the congressional floor. The two students also met with local representative Trey Rhodes and Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

Sixth grader Betsy came armed with the facts.

“Fifty percent of NASA workers are dyslexic, so they are probably the people who knew they were dyslexic and got all of the accommodations and the help,” Betsy said. “But also 50 percent of inmates are dyslexic, so those are people that did not get help. They did not know they were dyslexic; they felt like they were dumb; they dropped out of school and could not get a job.”

Betsy said she is encouraged by Rhode’s response.

“You really need to educate me on this. We are going to make some things happen,” Betsy recalled Rhodes saying to her.

The issue is personal for the Sligh family. Michelle, Matthew and Betsy all suffer from the language-based learning disability. Betsy was diagnosed while attending private school. Although she is quick to point out that her teachers at Lake Oconee Academy have been great about working with her, she feels passionate about the need for early detection and screening within the public school system.

Those affected by the disorder display unique characteristics that require specific accommodations, Michelle said. Schools are not geared toward them. Dyslexics are typically creative, but difficulties in areas like math, spelling and handwriting create huge obstacles.

“Spell check is my best friend,” Betsy said while nodding in agreement.

Michelle said the family is committed to fighting for change in the way schools define learning disabilities on a state level. A gap exists between federal and state protective laws because the word “dyslexia” is not in the state’s educational vocabulary.

“If you don’t use the word dyslexia, you do not have to be trained for it,” Betsy said.

The use of technology-assisted accommodations is a must for the bright, outgoing and well-spoken 11-year-old who described her own handwriting and spelling as “terrible.”

“In life we are going to be amazing, but in school we are not really going to do that well,” Betsy said of dyslexics in general.

Often, teachers do not reach out to parents and students unless the student demonstrates extremely low academic performance. Many dyslexic students fall through the cracks because they are not failing, Michelle said. Students with dyslexia often require alternative styles of teaching.

“One in 10 dyslexic kids gets picked up in the system,” she said.

Only children identified through proper screenings are protected under federal law. That is where the gap originates. The way the current state system is set up, dyslexic children do not qualify because screenings do not specifically address the disorder, Michelle explained further.

“Because the word does not exist, it is as though the disability does not exist.”

Betsy’s struggle in school is real. It is difficult for her to explain the obstacles that she faces. There are different spectrums of dyslexia. For her, spelling is inconsistent. Sometimes she spells a word correctly only to spell it incorrectly the next time. The harder she focuses, the more unrecognizable a word may become. Handwriting requires an enormous amount of time. Sometimes she cannot read her own scribbles. Foreign languages are a nightmare for the student who struggles with memorization.

“Difficulty in writing affects almost every class,” Michelle said and added that assisted technology levels the playing field.

Michelle and Betsy have marked 2018 as a year of spreading awareness. After that, they hope to help persuade state legislators to include the word “dyslexia” in state laws regarding education and disabilities.

“I definitely feel like early screening is one of the ultimate goals,” Betsy said. “There are teachers telling kids, ‘you are really bright, but you do not work hard enough.’ If you catch it early then they are not going to spend their school years thinking they are dumb. “

Michelle nodded in agreement.

“If you can’t say dyslexia, then you can’t treat it,” she said.

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