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Dyslexia & Dysgraphia
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by Ptahra Jeppe and Mary Pembleton
Ptahra Jeppe is a disability rights lawyer. Which is pretty awesome in and of itself, until you learn pretty soon after meeting her, that Ptahra is deeply dyslexic. It’s only then that you start to realize how very hard she’s worked to get where she is today.
Ptahra isn’t shy about talking about her learning disability. Rather, she’s a passionate and outspoken advocate, hence her chosen career.
She may eye-read at a fourth-grade level, but Ptahra is armed with a powerful arsenal of tools, skills, knowledge, and willpower that made her journey through the rigors of law school, the LSATS, and each task-filled day of a demanding career, possible.
Learners with dyslexia are inherently at risk, but many don’t have a diagnosis. According to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, 20% of the population is dyslexic, but many don’t even know it. These are the learners who are spending many extra hours doing homework just to keep up, or act out in class to try to hide their reading struggles, or who are just barely getting by.
So what was it that made Ptahra’s experience different?
We spoke to her about her journey through school, and she identified eight key areas that were vital to reaching some of her biggest academic and career goals. She hopes that by sharing with others, her journey may help people with dyslexia and other disabilities see that their life goals are also possible.
Here’s how Ptahra suggests supporting children with dyslexia, based on what worked for her:
Signs of dyslexia in kids vary widely from person to person, from struggling to recognize and form letters to not comprehending what they read aloud.
If there’s suspicion that a learner may be dyslexic, as a disability rights lawyer Ptahra says that it’s wise to consider a clinical dyslexia diagnosis and/or school identification as early as possible, ideally in first or second grade.
Check out this helpful chart from Understood.org to learn more about the differences between school identification and clinical diagnosis.
Ptahra’s dyslexia was identified when she was in the third grade. According to Ptahra, formally identifying a child’s dyslexia can benefit a leaner in many ways, including:
A diagnosis of dyslexia is a great starting place, but do keep in mind that each person with dyslexia is different and experiences dyslexia differently.
For example, Ptahra doesn’t see words backwards, nor do words float around on the page for her.
“Asking open-ended questions and approaching learning challenges with curiosity allows you to build identities together,” she says.
“When people have real conversations, I think everyone gains better understanding, And when there’s better understanding, then it empowers students to stand up and name what it is that they need.”
It’s also a good idea to talk to a child about a suspected diagnosis before testing takes place, using language like: We don’t have all the answers right now, but we’re working on figuring them out.
“They already have a sense that something is different,” Ptahra says. “And I think our work as adults is differentiating between different and wrong. To explain that having learning challenges and differences doesn’t mean that something needs to be fixed.”
And once dyslexia is identified, discuss openly that dyslexia happens because a child’s brain works differently. Show them examples of successful people who also have dyslexia. Explain that dyslexia has nothing to do with how smart somebody is.
“Empower children to create their own narrative,” Ptahra says.
Children with dyslexia often have schedules full of tutoring, occupational therapy, testing, extra time required to complete assignments, etc.
They work hard and put forth a lot of effort! But they also can clearly see how their lives and abilities differ from that of their peers.
Identifying areas of strength and spending time doing things they enjoy, and are good at doing, is crucial in maintaining confidence, a sense of competency, and mental health in children with dyslexia.
Ptahra says that while her parents were steadfast advocates and encouraged her to work hard, they also reserved time for her to just be a kid. For example, they opted out of summer reading camps so she could take a much-needed break.
Ptahra says, “As a child, my parents nourished me in other ways. I was a big dancer and I was really into acting, I did things I was good at. I think that was important for nurturing my spirit and individuality.”
Using assistive technology is a skill that should be woven in as early as possible, because it is just that: a skill. And it’s a skill that learners will likely rely on for the remainder of their academic careers, and perhaps their lives.
The advantage to introducing it in the early grades is that learners have the opportunity to master it before the third grade, when the focus of learning starts to shift from learning to read to reading to learn.
Teaching students with dyslexia to master technology tools before this shift takes place ensures that they won’t fall further and further behind their peers. It helps them to independently access the curriculum materials as soon as they need to.
The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) recommends that students be included in their own meetings “whenever appropriate,” and requires them to be present once transition planning commences.
But giving them a seat at the table in every meeting, and deploying those open-ended questions, means the IEP and special education services can start to involve the student who plays a crucial role in process and outcomes. In addition, the dyslexic learner can gain insight, agency, and self-advocacy skills that can be carried into their career or higher education.
When Ptahra was studying for the Bar Exam, she used skywriting—an MSL strategy that she learned as a young student—to commit information to memory. The assistive technologies she uses to work every day are the same ones that got her through school.
The skills that children with dyslexia learn as special education students (or students with a 504 plan), are skills and strategies that will hopefully help them navigate the rest of their lives.
Ptahra recommends that we teach learners how to use them with this in mind: to collaborate with a dyslexic learner to set a long-term goal first, and then identify tools that will help them reach it.
Ptahra’s parents were relentless advocates when she was a child. They pursued her diagnosis, intervention, and her right to accommodations with all the resources they had access to.
Self-advocacy is the ability to recognize a problem and speak up for oneself. It is a skill that requires explicit instruction and practice, just like any other skill. And it is vital for a person with a disability, in order to recognize and ask for the support they need to achieve their goals.
With her parents as models, Ptahra learned to be a strong advocate for herself.
Imagine a reading-inclusive early elementary classroom, where when it’s time for independent reading, each student selects either an audiobook, a physical text, a book from Learning Ally, or launches their Snap&Read to read a book online.
This is the kind of dyslexia-friendly classroom Ptahra envisions. One where various avenues of reading co-exist peacefully with separate explicit eye-reading instruction, like decoding skills. Where a struggling reader can fall in love with a story they read—and engage in that higher-level reading comprehension—just as easily as their eye-reading peers.
Ptahra believes in the power of narrative, and hers is one of grit and determination. By explaining how she got here, she hopes to provide a window into the world of a person with dyslexia for related service practitioners (like occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, and assistive technology specialists) to better understand effective ways to help.
It’s also her hope that her experiences can help inspire and empower other people with learning disabilities, and show them they can reach their biggest goals. It is a challenging road, but it is one that is absolutely, most definitely possible.