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Reflections on #DyslexiaHillDay

Categories: Learning Disabilities, Parenting, Public Policy/Advocacy

by Doug Sprei, National Director of Communications On July 14 and 15, Learning Ally came to Washington, DC to join leaders from 20 state chapters of the Decoding Dyslexia movement -- in a show of solidarity to promote educational reforms that will benefit future generations of children with dyslexia.  Much of the two-day event was powered by our good friends at National Center for Learning Disabilities; and other close affiliate partner groups attended as well, including Eye to Eye and Benetech / Bookshare. Group pic It is always a special experience to be in the atmosphere of  the U.S. Capitol, with its venerable halls and hearing rooms, where elected officials debate and forge public policy that affects us all. Externally, a good sense of what went on was broadcast in many personal Twitter feeds and institutional social media channels in the learning space, which sizzled and buzzed all week around hashtag #DyslexiaHillDay. Smith-Brownley This was an amazing forum in which children had an honored place and profound influence on politicians, educators, community leaders and parents.  Above, DD kids delighted and inspired Reps. Julia Brownley and Lamar Smith, leading Members of the Congressional Dyslexia Caucus. Will Marsh You can see that Spotlight on Dyslexia founder Will Marsh was clearly in his element, while NCLD executive director James Wendorf addressed attendees in the first morning's open session. Panel We were proud to see two Learning Ally members speaking on a great student panel moderated by Lyn Pollard of Understood.org. National Achievement Award winners Brian Meersma and Mara Schein (3rd and 4th from left) were invited to share their experiences as successful students with dyslexia at Cornell University. They were joined by two NCLD scholarship winners along with brilliant Ben Cooper of Texas. EdwardsDid you know that Congresswoman Donna Edwards of Maryland once faced hard choices and skipped a mortgage payment to pay for crucial services to help her dyslexic child?  Many years later, she's a solid advocate on Capitol Hill for students and their families. In Wednesday morning's session, she spoke to a packed assembly of friends, families and community partners about re-writing the script for public policy and educational reforms. "Your voices really do matter," she stressed. BuschonAnother Member of Congress, Rep. Larry Buschon of Indiana, has been taking time to listen to families talk about their education and dyslexia issues. He encouraged folks to double up on their advocacy efforts and fine-tune their appeals to make an impression on busy Members and staff on the Hill. "Personal stories have most impact by far when you're talking to Congressional reps," he advised. Kids-HillDay Thoughtful event planners for #DyslexiaHillDay knew that the many children who came to Washington along with their parents would appreciate some space and time of their own amidst all the grown-up activities. So the kids enjoyed their own extended break-out session, in which Marcus Soutra of Eye to Eye led them in a fun and interactive workshop -- complete with abundant prizes and swag. Back in the grown-up session, many audience members teared up as adult dyslexic Ben Shifrin, head of the Jemicy School, described the pain of growing up without services or support. Shifrin's passionate, haunting comments -- achingly familiar to countless adults who were never diagnosed or identified -- were aimed directly toward public education officials in an effort to promote systemic understanding and change. HillDay1a After the general sessions, attendees divided into small groups to visit with Members and staff of Congress from their home states.  I was glad to accompany a great group of moms and kids from Decoding Dyslexia Virginia (pictured below at the office of Senator Mark Warner). VA1 At the same time, members of Decoding Dyslexia Pennsylvania met with Congressman Lou Barletta. . . PA2 . . .and many other state groups made their rounds to speak with lawmakers across the Hill.  Uniting all of our visiting parties was a talking points - policy statement titled "Success in School, Success in Life" -- laid out in four key goals:
  • Identify Early:  "We urge Congress – through the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- to enact strong provisions to encourage screening and interventions in early elementary grades for learning and attention issues to foster a more robust Child Find, as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act."
  • Build Educator Expertise: "We urge Congress to require educators receive appropriate professional development in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; and require teacher preparation programs to build the skills of all educators to address the needs of students with learning and attention issues in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act."
  • Invest in Special Education & Research: "We urge Congress to increase and prioritize the investment in IDEA, the National Center for Special Education Research within the Institute of Education Sciences, National Science Foundation, and National Institute for Child and Human Development to support the needs of students with learning and attention issues." 
  • Ensure Federal Agencies Enforce Existing Laws:  "We urge Congress to strengthen the tools for ensuring students with disabilities are appropriately supported and made available to the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice." 
DD3It may take some time before we can concretely measure the impact of what happened at #DyslexiaHillDay. Each year sees a much greater show of force in numbers (upwards of 140 parents, kids and supporters swarmed to DC this year), as well as stronger organization, drive and focused tactics on the part of DD movement leaders.  Most significantly, active participation by kids themselves -- speaking to lawmakers, making themselves visible on center stage in the great Dyslexia Dialogue -- is galvanizing national attention. Clearly there was more combined interplay with Members of Congress than ever before -- including many well known legislators who took time to really listen and process what they were hearing from parents and kids. Laws don't change overnight, but there can be no doubt that policy makers are paying more attention than they ever have before. Compared to where we were just a few years ago, it feels like welcome changes are in the atmosphere for kids with dyslexia, and their families and teachers.