BOISE, Idaho — Idaho is one of the few states left without laws identifying or addressing dyslexia as a specific learning disability.
Now, two bills hope to change that — and one just cleared the Senate floor.
It's a mission Robin Zikmund has led the charge on for over four years, inspired by her son, who was diagnosed with dyslexia in 2018.
"I took my evaluation to my school excited, like, 'Now I finally understand where his struggle is," she said. "I was told Idaho doesn't support students with dyslexia, and I thought, 'Well, we should."
Zikmund is the founder and president of Decoding Dyslexia Idaho, the local chapter of a national organization started in New Jersey. Its purpose, she said in an interview with Idaho News 6 on Thursday, is to bring awareness to the one in five students that struggle with dyslexia every day.
October is Dyslexia Awareness Month and we are celebrating with a month full of opportunities. Come learn and grow with us!https://t.co/RD0YvZwHLX— Decoding Dyslexia Idaho (@DDIDchange) September 18, 2020
Decoding Dyslexia Idaho (DDI) has another purpose — informing policymakers and educators about how they can better support children with dyslexic characteristics. Since its founding, the group has encouraged Gov. Brad Little to proclaim October as Dyslexia Awareness Month and sat down with the State Department of Education numerous times.
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For the last year, Zikmund said DDI has begun focusing on writing dyslexia-focused legislation with a team of literacy experts. The experts include Dr. Deb Blaser, who helped establish the Idaho Reading Indicator in 1999.
"These kiddos aren't getting that early screening. So, the result is that they feel like they're dumb. They feel like they've failed," Zikmund said. "It then creates a lot of issues that shouldn't have to happen, and that is mental health issues.
"By fourth grade, my son was at a place where he had so many anxieties and fears around going to school that he literally told me he wanted to kill himself," she continued. "The reason I am so passionate about bringing this legislation to Idaho is to catch the kids when we know we can provide appropriate remediation."
Sally Brown, an assistant professor and a literacy expert at the College of Idaho, is also a part of the group. Brown met Zikmund while serving on the state special education advisory panel and said they bonded through their shared experience with having a dyslexic child.
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Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin, meaning it's just how a person's brain functions, Brown said.
"What that looks like for the reader is that they may be disfluent. They have difficulty with the phonological processing in their mind, so they don't understand the sounds and language," Brown said. "You often see disfluent reading from students that have dyslexia also terrible spelling, for example, because they don't know how to represent that code of language."
Brown said there are a lot of misunderstandings around having dyslexia.
"It's actually this challenge and processing disorder in the brain," she said. "They're looking at words and hearing words differently than a typical reader."
If passed, DDI's legislation would direct the State Department of Education to implement evidence-based screening, intervention measures, and professional development for children with dyslexia. The screening would coincide with the Idaho Reading Indicator (IRI), which the state uses to test literacy rates in K-3 students.
Through the legislation, dyslexia would be screened through fifth grade to flag students who aren't reading proficiently. Brown said that pool of students would then receive additional measures through their teacher to improve their reading.
"It helps differentiate between what's happening in core instruction, general education classrooms, and then what needs to happen for intervention actually to move the bar for this student," she said.
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On Wednesday, Republican Sen. Carl Crabtree from Grangeville carried DDI's legislation through the Senate. It passed the Senate floor unanimously.
"We cast these kids into special needs classes or other things, thinking they can't learn. When in fact, they can read," Crabtree said on Wednesday. "I learned about the neglect that we have provided these kids. We have not helped them."
During the debate, several lawmakers shared their personal experiences with dyslexia.
"My father was dyslexic. When he was in school, he was labeled stupid, a dummy, and a problem. Even though that was roughly 80 years ago, that stigma is still alive with today's Idaho students," Republican Sen. Robert Blair from Kendrick said. "Looking back, I can only identify one thing that my father was afraid of - and that was being in public and having to read something in a public setting."
The bill now heads to the House Education Committee for review. Lawmakers will compare it to another piece of dyslexia legislation proposed by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra.
Ybarra's legislation would similarly require screening for Idaho K-3 students with follow-up instruction and intervention. The bill would also create a "dyslexia handbook" with resources and training for teachers to assist them in creating reading intervention plans specifically designed to help students with dyslexia.
"It is essential that we detect dyslexia and other obstacles to learning as early as possible so that kids who learn differently can still learn effectively," said Ybarra in a news release. "Students often aren't diagnosed with dyslexia until later grades. By then, teaching students to read for comprehension and even for enjoyment is an uphill battle."
To help administer the legislation, the State Department of Education would designate a dyslexia coordinator to provide school districts across Idaho with additional support and resources. The cost of implementing Ybarra's legislation is "subject to appropriation" but is estimated at over $2 million, according to the release.