Local Group To Pair Students With Dyslexia For Greater Self-Advocacy

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

Older students will be trained to help guide their young counterparts through their educational journey.

Navigating school can be difficult for students with dyslexia. The diagnosis can often be delayed in the early years, and self-esteem and enthusiasm for learning can be impacted as kids struggle to adapt in the classroom. Nicole McCarthy, a mother of three from Canton, has two daughters who have dyslexia, and knows all too well the challenges they face.

“So many kids go undiagnosed and struggle,” she said. “Because of that, my daughters have learned how to advocate for themselves.”

But not all students do so in a complicated system, and that’s where concerned parents such as McCarthy are stepping in. McCarthy and several other Bay State parents are part of a locally founded group, Say YES! to Dyslexia (sayyestodyslexia.com), a non-profit outreach organization for students with dyslexia and their parents. The program was born out of a New Jersey-based national non-profit, Learning Ally (learningally.org), whose goal is to empower dyslexic, blind, or visually impaired students.

Learning Ally’s YES! Ambassador Program is a campaign that pairs younger students with learning differences with older students with dyslexia. Known as Ambassadors, the older students will be trained to help guide their young counterparts through their educational journey. The YES! (Youth Examples of Self-Advocacy) Ambassador Program is available in a few states around the country, and McCarthy and her peers are now working with Learning Ally to launch a Massachusetts branch.

The YES! program trains students with learning differences to recognize their strengths and weaknesses, help them build confidence, and provide them with tools to become self-advocates. McCarthy will co-lead the Massachusetts group with Ann Andrew, a Gloucester mom who has two sons with dyslexia.

The organization will train a group of YES! Ambassadors who will offer advice and advocacy best practices to their younger partners.

“Students with dyslexia need to know how to speak up and say to teachers, for example, ‘This is the IEP (Individual Education Plan) that I have and this is the accommodation I need to succeed,’” McCarthy said. “Many of them need help to be able to gain that voice.”

YES! Ambassadors are trained to help guide younger students through a series of goals, according to Lissa True, Learning Ally’s youth service coordinator, who will be working with Massachusetts parents. This is done both at local events, which will pair Ambassadors and younger students, as well as through phone calls or via email after a relationship is established.

“Students with dyslexia and related differences, ages 9 and up, are eligible to join the program,” True noted.

YES! Ambassador leaders are ages 12 and up and will have to complete a series of interviews and training in order to participate, she added. In addition to mentoring responsibilities in the YES! program, ambassadors will talk to students and parents at area events about their learning differences, self-advocacy, and assistive technologies. They will also volunteer to be on Q&A panels and demonstrate assistive technology, as well as help host Learning Ally events.

Advocates say the program will benefit both the students who need these resources, as well as their parents, who may be feeling helpless after a child’s diagnosis.

“I felt like our family was almost at an advantage with two kids with dyslexia,” McCarthy said. “I was able to research a lot on dyslexia and find out as much as I can. Some people just don’t have the time to do that.”

And that’s why McCarthy feels so passionate about getting the YES! Ambassador program off the ground in Massachusetts. She is seeking to fill gaps and offer students a helping hand by pairing them with other students who have been there when it comes to managing dyslexia.

McCarthy and Say YES! to Dyslexia will start accepting applications in early February from students interested in becoming ambassadors. The plan is to train them and launch officially for the 2016-2017 school year.

Parents and students interested in learning more about the program can email yes@learningally.org. Say YES! to Dyslexia can be found at facebook.com/sayyestodyslexia.

Understanding Dyslexia

Dyslexia is often overlooked as the reason for reading difficulty. Yet, the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity reported that it is the most common reading disability, affecting “approximately 1 out of every 5 people.” It is a neurological condition that crosses racial and socioeconomic lines and occurs when the brain has difficulty processing written language.

Many “remain undiagnosed, untreated, and struggling with the impact of their dyslexia,” the center reported. The result is that children with dyslexia are left to find or create new ways to cope with reading issues.

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), “some [dyslexic] children show few signs of difficulty with early reading and writing. But later on they may have trouble with complex language skills such as grammar, reading comprehension, and more in-depth writing.”

The NCLD published guidelines identifying some of the early warning signs of dyslexia. For preschool children, the symptoms include trouble with tasks such as recognizing letters, matching letters with sounds, rhyming, learning the alphabet and numbers, or understanding common word sequences.

For school-age children, the NCLD cites difficulty with spelling, remembering facts and numbers, handwriting or gripping a pencil, and word problems in math. A child may also reverse letters, such as b and d, or move letters around when spelling a word.

Teenagers and adults may show signs of difficulty reading aloud, reading at an expected level, managing time, or learning a foreign language. The NCLD also notes that many show problems with summarizing a story or understanding non-literal language, such as that of a joke.

Source: “A Loss for Words: Many Young Readers Slowed by Dyslexia,” by Mary Jo Kurtz, baystateparent Magazine, Oct. 2014.