Keith Gray is the founder and director of Dyslexia Canada
Most kids don't want summer to end. But 15 per cent of kids absolutely dread summer ending. Going back to school in September is torture for them. They will be outcasts. They are the 15 per cent of children who are dyslexic. That means they're headed back to an environment that judges them to be stupid. In many cases, they'll be bullied and abused because people think they're dumb – because they can't read, spell or they mix up words and numbers.
In some cases, school – the place that should help them – may be one more step towards failure. That's because dyslexic children in Canada aren't being given a fair shot. For starters, Canadian educators – meaning provincial ministries and therefore boards of education – won't even recognize the term "dyslexia." How can you deal with something you won't dare define?
There is, however, a globally accepted definition. The International Dyslexia Association, a world-renowned authority, defines dyslexia as "a specific learning disability that is neuro-biological in origin. It's characterized by difficulties with accurate and or fluent word recognition and poor spelling and decoding abilities." It is hereditary.
Most western countries recognize dyslexia and have taken positive steps to ensure dyslexic children get a fair and just education. Thirty-nine American states have legislated dyslexia-related educational laws.
Sadly, Canada stumbles along. Authorities here prefer to label children who have difficulty reading, spelling and decoding as simply having a learning disability or LD. They get little or no immediate assistance. Our schools prefer to use the "wait-and-see" approach – wait for three years to see if the child improves. If no improvement occurs, then the child may be considered for psychological assessment that could take another two to three years.
In Ontario alone, more than 40,000 children are waiting for assessment out of 250,000 who struggle with dyslexia. Tragically, assessment and intervention will come far too late for this group's learning development. It is a "wait-and-fail" disaster.
Of children with learning disabilities, 80-85 per cent of them are believed to be dyslexic. Why are we as Canadians so hesitant to do anything about this? Surely, we don't want our children to fail or to suffer. But they will. A University of Toronto study reveals that a dyslexic child is five times more likely to be physically abused than the average child. Another by the University of Texas reports that almost 48 per cent of surveyed incarcerated people in Texas are dyslexic.
There are plenty of shimmering examples of people who've found their way, in spite of their dyslexia – Steven Spielberg, Pablo Picasso, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Anne Bancroft, to name just a few. However, for every dyslexic child who makes it through the education system, many more are unable to reach their learning potential and make a full contribution to society. I was almost one of those. I failed at school and ultimately dropped out. At 82, I still have trouble spelling and am a slow reader. I don't want others to go through the pain I did.
There are a few simple things that will help. First, recognize dyslexia exists. Second, screen and assess children in kindergarten and no later than the first grade. If a child has dyslexia, there must be immediate remediation via one of the many well-regarded learning systems available. Finally, there has to be training for elementary teachers. Manitoba is a good example – it has trained 300 teachers in the past year alone.
Not only is the situation a living tragedy, it also has monumental costs to our country. Over the years, the pages of this newspaper have overflowed with stories about training young people so we can innovate and keep up in the global economy. That's great. But what about the 15 per cent who are being systematically left behind because of their dyslexia? They're not even close to being trained or getting a reasonable chance. Unfortunately, because of our inaction, they're headed for troubled lives.