'Another piece of the puzzle' Help: The International Dyslexia Association, which serves as a clearinghouse for parents of dyslexic children, researches, defines and defends the learning disorder.

The Education Beat

March 08, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WHEN YALE University scientists announced last week that they had identified the short circuit in the brain that blocks reading -- that they'd even taken a picture of it -- there were smiles all around in a crowded Towson office suite.

And then the phones started ringing.

The calls came from parents and teachers around the country. CNN, in reporting the Yale findings, had given out the telephone number of the International Dyslexia Association, a 49-year-old organization that researches, defines and defends dyslexia, the learning disorder that affects perhaps 15 percent of the population.

"The research simply confirmed what we've known for 70 years," says J. Thomas Viall, executive director of the association, which has 12,500 members in 48 countries. "But 70 years ago we didn't have the technology to look into the brain. Now we do. Now we've got another piece of the puzzle."

Dyslexia is not related to intelligence. It's not a sign of laziness, and it's not an illness. Viall's group has been fighting on all three of those fronts since its founding in 1949.

The challenge then, as now, is to convince skeptics, including a good many educators and policy makers, that dyslexia exists. Viall's organization is essentially dyslexia's public relations firm, charged with lending respectability to the disorder.

The calls to the association's 800 number come from parents, some in tears, and anxious teachers fighting school bureaucracies. (They are familiar themes to those of us closely involved with the Reading By 9 project at The Sun.) The association fields 1,500 to 2,000 calls a month, says Viall, and March will break the record.

The association does much more than defend children and adults with dyslexia. It sponsors research, puts out a journal, advocates teacher training in special education, holds an annual conference and promotes phonics-oriented reading instruction for dyslexics.

On Friday it will join other organizations in a national campaign to promote early identification of learning disabilities.

The dyslexia association has had three names and four addresses. Once called the Orton Society, after Samuel T. Orton, a pioneer discoverer of what used to be known as "congenital word blindness," the organization moved to Baltimore from Connecticut in 1971 to be closer to some of the giants in the reading field, among them the clinical psychologist Roger E. Saunders.

The Orton Society then had 1,100 members and was operated by volunteers in donated offices, recalls Tucky Ramsey, who helped bring the organization to Baltimore. (The association now has 16 employees on LaSalle Road in Towson and a budget of $1.4 million.)

Like many others, Ramsey turned to the Orton Society because two of her sons were dyslexic. This was before Congress enacted legislation guaranteeing an equal education for all handicapped children, and Ramsey and her friends spent much of their time in the early 1970s coaxing services for their children from the public schools.

"I handled the cases for other parents who were fearful and who didn't have the financial resources or the political know-how," Ramsey says. "It was considered shameful to have dyslexia, like getting raped, and Baltimore County wanted none of it."

Dyslexia has one thing going for it. Although it isn't considered curable -- most dyslexics fight the disorder all of their lives -- interventions can help dyslexic children learn to read proficiently.

"In this respect, it's almost a cart before the horse problem," says Viall. "Normally, in medicine, we define the problem and then figure out ways to fix it. With dyslexia, it's just the opposite. We've spent 50 years devising interventions we know work, but we're not sure of the exact cause, although we do know it's in the brain.

"And we're still in a society that's reluctant even to believe that the problem exists."

In the "phone room" of the association headquarters, three women respond to calls and e-mail inquiries. Much of what they do is get parents in touch with the nearest place where a suspected case of dyslexia can be diagnosed.

That can be hundreds of miles away. "I've had parents say they'll fly anywhere for help," says Virginia Yeatman-Pugh. "In both of the Dakotas, there's no one to call."

Cindy Beale says she feels a "sense of urgency" about the job, brought on by her feeling that her fifth-grade son failed to learn to read at a Baltimore County elementary school where phonics was largely ignored.

"Reading affects everything," she says, "and we're foolish to wait to see how far behind a child can fall before we decide to intervene. I got a call from a parent whose child was 16 and didn't know how to read. 'Sixteen?' I said. 'What in the world have you been doing all this time?' "

The International Dyslexia Association's toll-free telephone number is 1-800-ABCD123. Its Baltimore number is 410-296-0232. The association's Web site can be found at www.interdys.org.

The national campaign promoting recognition, earlier diagnosis and better treatment of dyslexia will be announced formally at the annual Learning Disability Association conference in Washington on Friday.

The Learning Disabilities Association's toll-free number is 888-300-6710. Its address on the World Wide Web is www.ldonline.org.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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