Pete’s Comments: Pat Howey’s Post & the Decoding Dyslexia Flap

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In December 2014, advocate Pat Howey published a post on the blog entitled “Wake Up Folks! You are Being Sold a Line of Goods about Dyslexia.” Her post generated a fair amount of controversy.

Several members of Decoding Dyslexia asked me to respond to Pat’s post and clarify whether her post reflects the position of Wrightslaw.

Only a post by Pete Wright or Pam Wright can reflect a position of Wrightslaw. We do not muzzle, edit, or revise opinions posted by others in this blog. A post by anyone other than Pete Wright or Pam Wright does not reflect a position of  Wrightslaw.

However, when I read Pat Howey’s post, I agreed with the essence of her post. Pat expressed concerns that schools are selling parents a “line of goods” by claiming that schools need full funding and that schools cannot teach dyslexic kids because there is no definition for “dyslexia.” I share her concerns about schools selling parents a line of goods.

In her post, Pat pointed out that the word “dyslexia” has been in the federal special education law since the law was enacted in 1975. Pat noted that my client, Shannon Carter was “the original dyslexia case . . . this is the law of the land.”

Florence County Sch. Dist. IV v. Shannon Carter  510 US 7 (1993)

I represented Shannon Carter before the U.S. Supreme Court in Florence County Sch. Dist IV v. Shannon Carter. Shannon attended public schools that failed to teach her to read. At the end of ninth grade, Shannon was reading on a fifth grade level and was functionally illiterate. Shannon’s parents placed her into Trident Academy in Mt. Pleasant, SC. The staff at Trident Academy used Orton-Gillingham methods to teach Shannon how to read.

For more about the Carter case, read “Three Generations of Dyslexia at the U.S. Supreme Court” at:

For more about my personal history with dyslexia, read:

Pat expressed concerns that parents of dyslexic kids are buying into the public school’s “excuses and diversionary tactics” and warned “Don’t be misled.”

She reiterated this point in her next sentence: “Everything that is necessary to provide kids with dyslexia with an appropriate education is already available.”

Kids with dyslexia are entitled to protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The IDEA is a federal law that requires public schools to provide a free appropriate education to children with disabilities, including dyslexia. Go to Wrightslaw and search for cases about “James Brody” and “Joseph James” and other youngsters with dyslexia whom I represented.

Pat asserted, “There is no excusable reason why public schools cannot provide an appropriate education. But parents and advocates are buying this all over again.”

Her last comment created a firestorm of controversy.

I did not view Pat’s post as a rant against Decoding Dyslexia. I viewed her post as a warning to parents that they should not blindly accept a public school’s position that they cannot teach children with dyslexia for the reasons noted above, and the assumption that parents are responsible for changing the law – again.

Schools are Selling Parents a Line of Goods

Pat closed with “Wake up folks! You are being sold a line of goods. Don’t allow the schools to move you forward to yesterday.”

Despite some of the accusations leveled against her, Pat did not say that Decoding Dyslexia is selling parents a line of goods. Because her post was published on the Wrightslaw Blog, some people accused Wrightslaw of “not supporting Decoding Dyslexia.”

I was astounded by the negative reactions to Pat’s post and by the responses from people who were angry that Wrightslaw allowed Pat to post this article.

Wrightslaw has always supported Decoding Dyslexia (DD). If you are a DD member and have attended one of my training programs, you know that I support Decoding Dyslexia.

In the fourth sentence of her article, Pat wrote, “I love the Decoding Dyslexia movement.” I know this is true.

I did not see Pat’s post as criticism of Decoding Dyslexia, but as a warning to parents: If you succeed in getting your state law changed, do not relax. Never assume that the law will be properly enforced.

Many of the successful changes in state laws generated by DD relate to the definition of dyslexia. Having the state law define dyslexia is intended to undercut a school district’s claim that they cannot provide educational services to children with dyslexia because there is no definition of dyslexia.

Dyslexia, Defined

Most states are adopting the definition of dyslexia articulated by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), formerly known as the Orton Dyslexia Society, in 2002.

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and / or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction.

Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.” Endnote: Adopted by the International Dyslexia Association Board of Directors, November 12, 2002. This definition is also used by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD).

Studies show that individuals with dyslexia process information in a different area of the brain than do non-dyslexics.

Many people who are dyslexic are of average to above average intelligence.

I have been a member of the International Dyslexia Association for over 40 years. You may be interested in my talk about Dr. Samuel T. Orton when I was the Keynote Speaker for Decoding Dyslexia Day in Richmond, VA on October 26, 2013.

Some comments to Pat’s post were intensely personal, accusing her of being jealous of DD’s success. One  commenter claimed that Pat was critical of people who sought legislative change when Pat expressed concerns about school districts that tried to lead parents down the wrong path and warned parents to be careful.

Several individuals who commented on our blog and our Facebook page said that DD is not selling anything and attacked Pat for accusing DD of selling a false “line of goods.” If these individuals took the time to read Pat’s article, they would know that Pat was expressing concerns about school districts selling parents a line of goods.

Other comments were constructive, including one that supported legislation to improve teacher training which has been a long-standing mission of the International Dyslexia Association.

As the comments poured in, Pat responded, “If you read my post carefully, you will see that I am not criticizing the DD movement . . . it has done wonders in publicizing dyslexia . . . I am providing a historical perspective.”

If You don’t Understand History, You Are Doomed to Repeat It

As I read Pat’s post for the first time, my mind drifted back to the state of special education in the early days. In the late 1970’s, if you lived in Virginia and had a child with autism, your school district could refuse to provide any special education services to your child “because autism is a medical condition.” A federal court in Virginia upheld that incredible position.

Because of litigation about meeting children’s medical needs and the Supreme Court decision in Tatro, eligibility criteria changed. Autism was included as an eligibility category in IDEA.

Even though autism is now clearly recognized as a disability that may adversely affect educational performance, many parents of children with autism still face the same eligibility battles as parents of children with dyslexia. In other words, even though the statute has changed, the battles remain the same, and they are not disability specific.

As I continued to read Pat’s post, my thoughts then shifted from the early battles about autism eligibility to the efforts of parents in Texas with both dyslexia and autism.

Texas State Dyslexia Law

The Texas Legislature passed one of the nation’s toughest dyslexia laws in 1985. The Texas Dyslexia Law required all school districts to screen students for dyslexia and to implement instructional interventions for students with characteristics of dyslexia. The Texas Education Agency wrote guidelines to help districts interpret the law. Few districts in Texas complied.

In 1990, and again in 1996, the Texas State Board of Education spelled out the requirements of the Texas State Dyslexia Law in detail. In 2001, the Texas Education Agency revised the guidelines and published them in The Dyslexia Handbook: Procedures Concerning Dyslexia and Related Disorders. You can download a copy of The Dyslexia Handbook from the Texas Education Association website.

The Texas State Dyslexia Law was enacted 30 years ago. What happened next? Not much.

Texas does not lead the nation in identifying children with dyslexia. Texas does not have a reputation for providing high quality educational services to children with dyslexia.

Texas Autism Supplement

Much like DD, Texas parents of children with autism were responsible for passage of the Texas Autism Supplement in November 2007. The autism supplement requires the IEP/ARD committees to consider the use of “strategies” based on peer-reviewed, research-based educational programming practices for students who are eligible for special education services under the autism spectrum disorders category.

In March 2008, the Autism Society of Collins County (Dallas) Texas invited me to do a Wrightslaw training program with a special emphasis on the Texas Autism Supplement.

I knew that the Texas Autism Supplement would not change children’s IEPs unless their parents mastered effective advocacy skills. The statutory change was another tool in the parents’ arsenal, but parents could not rest. I knew that history would repeat itself. School districts that did not want to provide services or did not designate funds to train their teachers were likely to do an end run on the law.

During this training program, I taught parents how to use the facts to create a compelling theme, to tell a story and to create paper trails. The Autism law was helpful, but it was not sufficient by itself.

Systems Change via Legislation and Litigation

Effective systems change is not limited to changing state and federal laws. For me, systems change begins in the courtroom. Systems change in special education issues occurs both in the legislature and the courtroom. Both are necessary tools and they do not need to work together in harmony. The creation of the special education law was triggered by two cases, the PARC and Mills case.

One case, properly spun, so the issue is clear and compelling and causes the Judge to want to rule in my favor is my style. If you have attended one of my programs, you know I never argue that the school’s IEP is not appropriate.

Your Honor, their IEP damaged the child and I will prove it to you, using their own test data!

As you may realize, although Pat Howey does not have a law license, she is a born litigator. She is not a politician and I doubt could ever be an effective lobbyist for system change. Pat’s style is to empower parents to get services for their child now, not to wait for legislative change. As a lay advocate and parent of a child with special needs, Pat litigated cases on behalf of children with dyslexia against school board attorneys in due process hearings, and she won many cases.

Pat is not opposed to those who pursue systems change through legislation. Like me, Pat prefers a different approach. Represent one child in one case, prevail, and change the system by judicial decree.

  1. New laws and legislation will only benefit parents IMO if : #1. Parents are aware of ALL the laws that relate to SLD/dyslexia from both a general education and special education standpoint. #2. Parents are trained in advocacy and the steps to take when the district or state does not seem to be following the laws or appears to be misinterpreting them. #3. Parents know organizations/advocates to turn to when additional support is needed. Parents need to know how to find effective advocates with a proven track record of success for students with SLD/dyslexia from their ability to obtain appropriate services, track and monitor student progress, and know when the time comes to do something different. It isn’t enough to get services alone and not all advocates are created equally.

  2. Last year my son was finally diagnosed with dyslexia by his developmental pediatrician. Also he was diagnosed with ADHD. A developmental pediatrician evaluate my son and diagnose him with dyslexia. By the end of his 3rd grade year, he was given an IEP. It took me two and a half years of advocating. Now I am in a catch 22. They discontinued his direct reading intervention with the literacy team because he is now receiving minutes with a special educator in resource. My son is reading on an end of 1st grade level with branching in 2nd grade when he should be reading on a 4th grade level. Since I am a teacher at the same school and in the same district, I know that they do not have anyone trained in the Orton-Gillingham methods at my school. I even asked if there was afterschool or tutoring available for my child but I was told that my school decided to implement a STEM afterschool program instead for instruction for struggling students. I don’t know what to do next. What should I do?

  3. “I did not see Pat’s post as criticism of Decoding Dyslexia, but as a warning to parents: If you succeed in getting your state law changed, do not relax. ”

    Pete, you have “hit the nail on the head.” As a parent of a dyslexic child, I was not going to depend on a state law, policy meeting, statewide special education commissions, etc. I had to advocate and work carefully with a school district that truly did not understand dyslexia. My son’s neuro psyche eval gave the district a true picture into his dyslexia. I never focused on waiting for policy makers and legislative forums. I had to educate the district, myself and my son on many matters ranging from appropriate Wilson implementation to the of assistive technology. At the same time, I applaud all the teachers who truly cared but had to work with tied hands or simply a lack of knowledge. My time was spent advocating for my son and that window of time was used wisely. I applaud groups like Decoding Dyslexia. For me and my particular case, my energy was well spent dealing with my son, his needs, specifics at his school and so much more. Truly, I was exhausted but well seasoned educators and administrators were educated about dyslexia. It was well worth it.

  4. Pete, thanks for your insightful comments. Law does not equal appropriate implementation. Living in TX, I know that your comments on the TX dyslexia & autism law/programs are accurate.
    I am glad that DD-TX is here working to educate parents. TEA revised the TX Dyslexia Handbook in 2014 & parents with DD-TX were very active in this process.

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