Lawmakers look to make dyslexia a recognized disorder

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JEFFERSON CITY - A normal school day for Emmie and Mazie Patek is different than that of other elementary students. The two sisters are dyslexic, and processing the words they read can sometimes come as a challenge. 

The Patek sisters are what some students with dyslexia might call lucky; their teachers allow them extra time on tests and read them questions out loud when they need assistance. Not all students with dyslexia have these accommodations at their dispense.

Some Missouri schools and teachers don't recognize dyslexia as a disorder that needs accommodating. Only one in 10 students with dyslexia qualify for special education accommodations, leaving 90 percent to adjust on their own or with the help of cooperating teachers.

"Students with dyslexia just learn differently," Jewell Patek, Emmie and Mazie's father, said. "Learning differently means we've got to accommodate them so they can have the fullest learning experience as possible. Our schools should embrace that and be excited that they can figure out how to help these kids better. Unfortunately, some aren't."

The Patek sisters attend tutoring twice a week with Anita Kuttenkuler, a certified dyslexia tutor with A New Beginning Dyslexia Center. For many students, this outside help is the only option.  

"Some schools just don't help," Kuttenkuler said. "They know something is wrong, they test them for special education, and then when the students don't qualify, they don't know what to do with them."

Some Missouri lawmakers are pushing for statewide regulations to help schools effectively handle dyslexia. Two bills, one in the House and the other in the Senate, would specify that schools in the state have to screen their students for dyslexia and other related disorders. Kuttenkuler said screening allows for a diagnosis, and a diagnosis helps students get started with the accommodations they need.

"It will change that child's life," Kuttenkuler said of the screenings. "You're going to give them the accommodations and the instruction that they need to be successful. And then they don't have to face years of failure before they get help."

Kuttenkuler said students who go undiagnosed or who don't receive accommodations at school often lose confidence in their academic skills. She said when students with dyslexia finish assignments after the rest of the class, they become discouraged.

"Without accommodations, these students are being deprived of the chance at getting an A," Kuttenkuler said. "After so long, the only thing they can come up with is, 'I must be really dumb.' And that's just not the case."

Both Kuttenkuler and Patek said screening is an important first step, but accommodations are the ultimate goal. They recommended accommodations such as audio books, oral exams and extended time on assignments. Kuttenkuler also said she hopes to see a required class for teachers to take that focuses on instructing students with dyslexia.

"Most teachers want to help, they just don't know what to do," Kuttenkuler said. 

"I really think the teachers, when they realize what few accommodations are needed and how far they'll go to improve the quality of education for the kids, will embrace them," Patek said.