Rescuing dyslexics by breaking the code

March 01, 1998|By Sara Engram

FOR those who prefer that fund-raising letters get straight to the point, the opening sentence of a solicitation from MADAY may seem to be, at best, a message badly garbled in transmission: "Truly the hore wene he was compeld to develop a comppozision sremde the lo and grimist of the hole week."

But for MADAY, the especially apt acronym for Maryland Associates for Dyslexic Adults and Youths Inc., the message could not be more clear. Those garbled words are a cry for help from an adult dyslexic who knows the words he wants to use but has no clue how to encode them into print.

The translation is provided later in the letter: "Truly the hour when he was compelled to develop a composition seemed the lowest and grimmest of the whole week."

If dyslexics face high hurdles in reading, a process that involves decoding written language, the obstacles they face in spelling, or encoding words into print, can be even more daunting.

In a world where literacy, both reading and spelling, is essential to success in life, dyslexics often find themselves locked out and laughed at, however high their intelligence. The resulting anger and frustration can cripple a life.

That's where MADAY comes in. Founded in East Baltimore in the early 1980s to help young people flirting with delinquency, MADAY has blossomed into one of the only resources in the region for low- and moderate-income dyslexics.

MADAY offers one-on-one tutoring based on the Orton Gillingham approach to reading instruction, the method that has proved to be a lifeline for dyslexics. Tutors who volunteer for MADAY undergo an intensive training course and agree to commit at least one hour each week for a year.

According to Nadine Weinstein, MADAY's executive director, the close bonds formed between tutor and student can mean that these relationships last several years.

For dyslexics, the tutors are offering the keys to respectability, to a world of written words they thought they would never be able to enter. For tutors, the chance to make such a huge difference in someone else's life offers its own inimitable rewards.

Too often, dyslexics flounder for years before getting proper help. Few elementary schools have reading specialists trained to identify young dyslexics and provide the kind of tutoring they need early on.

In fact, because schools don't test students until they are two years behind grade level, few dyslexics are identified before age 8 or 9. By then, they have a lot of catch-up to do -- and have suffered more humiliation than any child deserves.

And in recent years, the problems of these students were magnified as reading instructors embraced a "whole language" approach. As Ms. Weinstein notes, if a lack of emphasis on phonics has harmed the general population, it has been disastrous for dyslexics.

For most people, literacy comes relatively easily. The notion that people of normal or even superior intelligence simply can't break that code is difficult to believe. Can't read? You must be retarded.

A lifetime sentence

That attitude has condemned plenty of young dyslexics who struggle in the early grades to special education classes, where they are grouped with children with developmental disabilities, mental retardation or emotional disorders. In short, they are treated as barely educable.

And yet, as more people recognize the characteristics of LTC dyslexia, they are also recognizing that what is, in many respects, a disability often brings with it marked strengths.

While they may struggle with written language, dyslexics are often gifted in other ways. Thomas Edison, Whoopi Goldberg, Tom Hanks, Winston Churchill, Woodrow Wilson -- all these dyslexics not only learned to compensate for their weaknesses in a print-dependent society, but they also excelled in their fields.

The tragedy for society is that it so often fails to recognize and tap the talents of dyslexics. MADAY tutors are working to change that, one by one.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial page editor for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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