Students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities struggle to find support in BC schools
By Spencer van Vloten
July 1st, 2021
Students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities are underreported and undersupported in BC schools. We talked with Dyslexia BC's Cathy McMillan about why the education system's falling short, and the problems this creates in school and beyond.
Spencer: Many people just think of dyslexia as reading words backwards, but what is it really?
Cathy: Dyslexia is an unexpected ability to read or spell. You start realizing that a child is dyslexic around grade 3-4 usually, but sometimes it’s apparent earlier in severe cases.
Dyslexia is not simply reading backward. Dyslexic persons often have high IQs and many strengths, such as in visual and perceptual skills, but they experience difficulties with working memory and have difficulty with certain letters like b, d, c , q. Someone with dyslexia can struggle to distinguish between similarly shaped letters, so they may read 'bed' as 'deb'.
Dyslexia comes in various levels, and is a genetic neurodiversity. Just like being born with brown eyes or blue eyes, if you have dyslexia there’s a good chance your child will, and if already have child with dyslexia, the chances are very high that any future children you have will too.
Spencer: Tell us about Dyslexia BC
Cathy: I'm dyslexic, and have 2 young adult children who are dyslexic.
My youngest, my daughter, was diagnosed in grade 1 and is on the severe side, and my son was diagnosed in grade 7.
When my son was diagnosed, it made such a difference for him to start getting the right support. Up to that point he’d had such anxiety because of his struggles in school, but getting the support he needed made such a big difference, and he just graduated with honours from UBC.
My daughter’s in 2nd year university, and uses assistive technology to read, speech to text technology for writing, and has accommodation in place so that she has extra time to complete exams. She’s doing well, but it has taken years of tutors and other supports to get her there.
Cathy's daughter Tannis talks about her experiences at school with dyslexia
My kids, and what I’ve been through with them, were the motivation to start Dyslexia BC. Seeing how things improved so much for them when they finally had the right support, I want to help other families get this too.
We're a parent-led advocacy group, and are all fighting for a better system.
Spencer: How's BC doing when it comes to supporting people with dyslexia and other learning disabilities?
Cathy: Not very good!
People with mild dyslexia and learning disabilities probably do okay, but the situation's very different for those with more severe cases.
The incarceration system’s full of people with learning disabilities, and studies have shown that kids on street are disporpitonately dyslexic and have other learning disabilities. These kids are dropping out of school because they find it so tough and don’t get support.
Cathy McMillan is the founder of Dyslexia BC
BC school districts only report 3 percent of students with dyslexia to the ministry, but we know that many more students, more like 15-20 percent, are dyslexic.
That means there are a lot of people in British Columbia going undiagnosed, which results in mental health Issues, under employment, drug addiction, incarceration, and many more issues!
One reason for this underreporting is that in 2002 the government took away the funding category for students with learning disabilities.
Schools would get $3000 per student for special education supports, but they took away that funding and gave it children with autism and physical conditions, while children with learning disabilities now get $0.
Children with learning disabilities now get $0
There’s also government funding to get an autism assessment, but if you don’t get diagnosed with a learning disability in school, it will cost $3000 per assessment to have it done privately on your own.
The added problem there is that each school only gets allotted 2 assessments per year for the whole school, and those often go to students who already have funding to cover assessments, meaning many others are left to pay thousands on their own or go without one.
Many families just don't have the money to afford an assessment , and hence their child never gets a diagnosis and the support - tutors, assistive tech, and so on - that comes with it.
Spencer: What's it like for someone with dyslexia once they're out of school?
Cathy: I get calls from from adults who are writing tests at ICBC for a commercial driver's license, I've heard from people with dyslexia who can't pass a written personal trainer test, and there are a lot more cases like this.
If you want to get accommodations for your job, you often have to get an assessment to prove you are dyslexic, you have to get the assessment each time, and you have to pay a lot for it. This makes it difficult for many people to get the accommodations they need.
We're also in an info age where so much communication relies on texting and social media, which can be especially challenging for people with dyslexia.
Not only is it difficult for them to communicate, there's a heightened sense of anxiety due to the fear that others will see them struggle and judge them for it.
Spencer: What are you calling on the government to do?
Cathy: First, bring back the funded category for learning disabilities. Even if it’s just the previous amount of $3000. Without this funding, there are far too many students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities who will never get a diagnosis and never get the support they need, and that has a lifelong impact.
bring back the funded category for learning disabilities
Second, make it law that all kids are screened for dyslexia in kindergarten, which only costs $10-20 as opposed to a full $3000 assessment. Also ensure that teachers are trained to teach students with dyslexia - in particular, for teachers to use structured literacy rather than the balanced literacy approach.
make it law that all kids are screened for dyslexia in kindergarten
Third, the government should consider creating some type of screening centre that could be used for adults that might want to write exams, like for a commercial driver's test.
Spencer: What's Dyslexia BC focusing on moving ahead?
Cathy: We created a survey a couple months ago about how it is for people to find dyslexia resources, and we'll be analyzing the data and sending it out to government. Currently, resources are hard for families and educators to find, which makes the condition more difficult to catch at an early age.
The government also needs to do something about the accessibility legislation - the Accessible BC Act - and we will be tracking this going forward. The consultation phase included learning and communication disabilities, but somehow these were removed from the act that was introduced..
Communication and learning disabilities are included in American legislation, other provincial legislation, and federal accessibility legislation, so why not in BC's? Between that and taking away funding for students with learning disabilities, I really don't know what the government's angling toward.
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!