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Dyslexia and Access to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)

by Dr. Joseph Plasner, Balabon Center

Parents of youngsters who have a reading disorder commonly referred to as dyslexia are quickly initiated into the world of special education in which getting proper help may prove to be a daunting and unrelenting task. The success of obtaining meaningful and appropriate services from school officials regarding your child's special needs will necessarily require a working understanding of the nature of Dyslexia, which is a language-based learning disability, as well as the ability of his/her school program to remediate it effectively. However, the pervasive impact that such a disability frequently weighs on your child's adaptive functioning and emotional development within the public school setting is not often easily understood. While there are rarely simple answers to improving literacy skills, it is essential for educators and parents alike to define the scope of the problem and delineate viable solutions to be offered each and every day during the formative elementary school years in order for the student who has a learning disability to truly receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).

In order to negotiate the maze of special education and the efficacy of interventions, a working understanding of Dyslexia is offered within the context of my clinical expertise, as well as experience as an educator, school psychologist, private practitioner, director of a private state-approved agency, and a child advocate. Relative to Dyslexia, the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV-APA) indicates that a reading disorder such as dyslexia has as its essential feature reading achievement (i.e. reading accuracy, speed, or comprehension) that falls substantially below what is expected given an individual's age, intelligence, and educational status. The disorder has to also interfere with academic achievement or with daily living activities. While in dyslexia, oral reading is demonstrated to have distortions, omissions, and substitutions, the presence of a Mathematics Disorder and/or a Disorder of Written Expression is known to commonly occur. Dyslexia may present itself as a disorder of phonological and/or orthographic processing, and as such it is usually associated with difficulty with respect to working memory. Within this context, it is likely that perceptual disorganization or inefficiency and an attention deficit disorder may coexist. Since Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability, students frequently experience difficulty grasping and utilizing the rules of language effectively and may experience significant difficulty with encoding and demonstrating written language and expression.

The impact of Dyslexia is often pervasive in students from the day they enter school. Although many struggle very early in their educational experience, Child Study Teams are frequently unable to identify this disorder in young students, and yet early identification is paramount with respect to treatment and prognosis. Because many Child Study Teams still adhere to the discrepancy model to identify a learning disability in which a standardized measure of IQ is significantly higher than standardized measures of reading achievement, early identification becomes problematic. In that regard, the WJ-III, which is often considered a gold standard to measure achievement, may not readily identify such children at an early age, especially if their IQ scores have been diminished by the very symptoms consistent with such a disorder, a concomitant attention deficit, and/or working memory weakness.

As a school psychologist and executive director of an independent child study team, I have learned through experience to assess youngsters from a clinical perspective, taking into account a thorough review of each and every child's history, current achievement levels, response to interventions offered, cognitive functioning, IQ variability, and adaptive functioning. Relative to individual standardized testing, I urge the assessment of basic skills achievement that goes beyond the utilization of basic foundation instruments to measure reading and language literacy. Although this is helpful with respect to determining the existence of a language-based learning disability in the form of a reading disorder, there are some very bright students who can be missed during kindergarten or first grade despite following the best acceptable professional practices. For those students, one must continue to monitor their progress and elicit input from their teachers and parents alike. It should be recognized that parents are and should think of themselves as being an integral component to the identification process as well as the implementation of appropriate interventions as they carefully gather information and scrutinize proposed or existing programs.

It is essential for parents to be aware of two important designations available to Child Study Teams regarding opening the door to special services for their children, one is Specific Learning Disability, (SLD) and the other is Other Health Impaired (OHI). Both of these categories come with goals and objectives that should be clearly delineated and measurable; however, the former holds school systems more accountable relative to implementing a meaningful program that confers educational benefit to students with language literacy deficiency. Over the years in my practice, I have observed too many Child Study Teams readily adopting the OHI-designation (children with ADHD are often classified under OHI) without fully embracing a student's struggle as he/she suffers from the impact of a Reading Disorder.

Although errors in classification do occur for various reasons, it is even more disconcerting and discouraging when parents eventually realize that, despite the school having acknowledged their child's Specific Learning Disability since first grade, their reading disorder has improved only very little by the time they enter high school, and they still can't write a coherent paragraph without many errors.

From the perspective of an educator and child advocate, I am disappointed in the inability of our public education system to implement the kind of research-based curriculum that has been shown to appropriately and successfully meet the needs of students who have been plagued by a reading disorder such as Dyslexia. Such a program offers an appropriate solution that is language based, comprehensive, systematic, sequential, and well integrated. In that regard, its scope, sequence and methodology are multi-sensory by design as it blends together, phonemic awareness, word attack, sight vocabulary, semantics, syntax, language mechanics and grammar, reading fluency and comprehension, and written language skill sets. Instead of investing in the type of curriculum that addresses language literacy issues, many school programs seek to offer a patch-work quilt kind of program, one in which they mostly offer a regular educational curriculum at a slower pace while utilizing various workbooks that do not present language literacy skills in a cohesive manner. I have also observed some school programs that offer a structure and recognized phonics and decoding approach while they neglect the other critical areas of language development.

To offer an approach which does not furnish a comprehensive and cohesive, well-integrated methodology toward the remediation of an existing reading disorder is not only antithetical to sound education and research, but it is detrimental to each and every child's sense of adequacy as it erodes the possibility for the establishment of a “positive success identity” and becoming an independent learner. Ramifications regarding self-esteem issues and response to psychosocial stressors seem also to loom within the near future for students with learning disabilities that have not been adequately addressed.

It is with a sense of hope that I consult with parents in order to educate them to hold their schools to a higher standard as they seek a public education for their learning disabled children who deserve better. Unfortunately, for many parents, this has come with a great deal of expense financially and otherwise when our courts seek to place the burden of proof on parents and not on school systems. It continues to be surprising and somewhat counterintuitive that as our best schools strive to meet more rigorous standards for students within the mainstream, the delivery of a comprehensive specialized curriculum well suited for students with reading disorders lags far behind. It's time we stopped and noticed that our children are our greatest natural resource and each and every one of them deserves a free and appropriate public education, whether they have a disability or not. Knowing that there are dedicated professionals that are willing to advocate for learning disabled children, offer guidance and relevant resources for parents, and implement remedial services that make a difference should be of comfort as we look toward the future.

Dr. Plasner, a licensed/school psychologist, and owner/executive director of Balaban and Associates, has recently completed a book entitled, "Conscious Parenting: A Values-Centered Approach". He has also developed an e-course on parenting that he will be offering on his website shortly, at He can be reached at:

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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