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Special Education Conference Features Children's Attorney
Joyce Koballa, Uniontown Herald-Standard, April 4, 2006

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Diagnosed with multiple learning disabilities in the second grade, a Richmond, Va., attorney recalled how condensation from a pitcher of Kool-Aid and some poster board used at a residential camp he attended served as pivotal tools in overcoming his struggles.

Pete Wright, who represents children with special needs, said he was 7 or 8 years old when he traveled from his home in Washington, D.C., to Camp Mansfield, located at the highest mountain in Vermont, where he spent two months being taught a multi-sensory-based program of language instruction.

It was there that Wright learned to use the five senses that helped him eventually conquer his condition of dyslexia, dysgraphia and attention deficit disorder after being labeled by school officials as borderline mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed.

After the school officials' assessment, Wright's parents stepped in and obtained a private tutor who worked with him every day after school for the next two years.

Wright said people with dyslexia reverse and rotate the letters of the alphabet causing them to hear the wrong sound.

Because of his diagnosis, Wright said he vividly remembers a tutoring session at camp where he drew a "W" on a piece of poster board and an "M" on another.

Wright recalled it was hot that day and not far from the poster board was a pitcher of Kool-Aid with condensation on one side.

"They had us draw with our two fingers a 'W' on the side of the Kool-Aid for 'water' and then (referring to the poster board) visualize pouring the pitcher of Kool-Aid into the W," said Wright.

Wright said he had to determine next which letter would hold more, the "W" or the "M."

"And right there, boom, you've got the link, 'w,' water, and you drank the Kool-Aid," said Wright.

Wright said taste and touch were used in that instance to understand the "w" sound and think it through.

"It's like driving a car...especially if you have a stick shift, you're worried about hitting the brake versus the clutch and the accelerator, but then it becomes automatic," said Wright.

Although the camp no longer exists, Wright said it served as a training facility for many of today's elder statesmen in the multi-sensory approach of Orton-Gillingham.

The program, developed in the 1940s, was named for Samuel Torrey Orton, a neurologist and pathologist, and Anna Gillingham, a gifted educator and psychologist.

When the two stumbled upon each other, they joined forces, with Orton a pioneer in focusing attention on reading failure and related language processing difficulties, and Gillingham training teachers and compiling and publishing instructional materials.

While the program was devised primarily for people with dyslexia, Wright said it could help any child that experiences difficulty with the reading process since it combines a multi-sensory approach to teaching reading, spelling and writing for students with language-based learning difficulties.

Whether it be Orton-Gillingham or another resource, Wright and his wife, Pam, a psychotherapist, have co-written several books pertaining to special education laws and what parents should know to see to it that their child receives the appropriate education program.

The couple also founded the Web site www.wrightslaw.com.

According to the state Department of Education, more than 264,000 children receive special education services in Pennsylvania.

Wright and his wife will speak at a boot camp in Lancaster on Friday and Saturday, addressing the three primary laws that impact children with special needs: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Rehabilitation Act or Anti-Discrimination Law.

By the time people leave the conference, Wright said, they will be comfortable with understanding the law, how to analyze it and where to find answers quickly.

"The most important thrust of the entire program is tactics and strategies and being able to understand evaluations," added Wright.

According to Wright, parents often become upset with the school district upon learning their child has a disability.

As the first step, Wright advises parents to sit back and "do nothing," he said, "because most of the time the first thing you do is going to be the wrong thing." Wright said the goal is to have parents use their emotions as a motivating force to understand the law and how to get doors opened for special education services.

"If you go in there and say the law states you got to do this and do that, you've automatically set up a mindset where doors start to close on you and you get locked out," said Wright.

In order to receive the best program for their child, Wright said parents should obtain a private evaluation from an expert or group outside the school district. "That person then becomes the lightning rod," added Wright.

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