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Column: Dyslexia advocate concerned some students not getting support

The number of Richmond students with learning disabilities is rising.
A stock image of students in the classroom.

Some students with special needs may not be getting the learning supports they need, a noted B.C. dyslexia advocate says.

Cathy McMillan, the founding member of Dyslexia BC, a non-profit advocacy organization for people with dyslexia, says she’s hearing from parents that their children with dyslexia are sometimes not getting designated as students with special needs. When they’re not designated, they don’t get individualized learning plans (IEPs), which can mean they’re not getting the help they need to learn to read.

“An individualized education plan is supposed to be your agreement with the school as to what they're going to do for your child's disability,” McMillan said in an interview. “But they're not getting diagnosed and not getting IEPs. They're just told they're getting the same support as everybody else. If it's not targeted to their needs, there's no way it's going to meet their disability.”

But the Ministry of Education says children with diverse learning abilities and disabilities are still being designated and receiving IEPs.

“The province is committed to providing equitable access to quality education for all students, including those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia,” the ministry said in an emailed response. “The creation of an Individual Education Plan (IEP) is not a prerequisite for a student to receive the supports and services they need to access their learning.”

Sarah Brooks, a teacher who works with special needs students in Cranbrook and president of Teachers of Inclusive Education BC, says students may be delayed in getting designations because of a backlog caused by the pandemic and a shortage of school psychologists. However, she said, the supports a student receives in learning to read don’t change much with a designation.

McMillan, who has dyslexia herself and who has advocated for her daughter with dyslexia through university, says dyslexia must be recognized as a disability in schools.

“I didn't think my kid had a disability because she was really smart and really a go-getter and just couldn't read. But (dyslexia) is a disability because it can hold you back and you're born with it. And then you can diagnose it,” McMillan said.

The need for supports for students with special needs is not a new story, but some of the nuances happening today may be. In 2016, teachers in B.C. won a landmark victory over the government, which restored class size and composition rules that had been stripped from their contracts in 2002. Between 2002 and 2016, a lot changed in the field of special needs students.  

With learning disabilities, like dyslexia, the categories themselves were broadened and changed over time to include students with mild learning disabilities. But the 2019 arbitration ruled that only students who would have been included in the more stringent 1995 definitions — meaning they were behind at least two grade levels — would count for class makeup.

Even worse would be if they are not designated at all, because then they won’t get an IEP or other supports, McMillan said.

But the province says that isn’t happening.

“The 2019 arbitration ruling did not impact the designation process for students, nor the allocation of supports and services for students with disabilities or diverse abilities,” the Education Ministry said in its statement.

Brooks has not seen a reduction in students receiving designations either, although she said there are huge differences throughout the province when it comes to class size and composition rules.

The rate of dyslexia in the population depends on the severity of the measurement, but a 2020 study found that looking at students who are in the 25th percentile in reading shows a rate of 17.4 per cent of the population, or about one in every six students with dyslexia.

Interestingly, when looking at the rate of students designated with learning disabilities across B.C., it has grown from about two per cent in 2002 to about 4.3 per cent today. However, in some districts, such as Surrey or Vancouver, the number of students with learning disabilities has dropped or stayed nearly the same in the past decade. Vancouver has fewer students than it did 10 years ago, but Surrey is growing. In Richmond schools, where the population is declining, the number of students with learning disabilities is rising.

Most students with learning disabilities have dyslexia, McMillan said.

Parents who are concerned their child might not have the learning supports they need, should talk to their child’s teacher first, and if necessary, follow up with the school’s principal, McMillan said.

“I always used to ask the principal, in October, just to make sure that my child was put on the list of special needs students that were designated with the Ministry of Education as having a special need,” McMillan said.

If the principal tells you your child doesn’t meet the criteria to have an IEP, there is an appeal process, McMillan said.

An official designation can also help when it comes to succeeding in college or university, she said.

“My daughter still reads at the second-grade level, but she's on the honour roll at the University of Victoria now,” McMillan said.

Tracy Sherlock is a freelance journalist who writes about education and social issues. Read her blog or email her [email protected].