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The Invisible People

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The Invisible People

By Abraham Mahshie

New study seeks to define the social costs of dyslexia

Imagine a 5-year-old boy in elementary school is one of the 10-20 percent of children who has dyslexia, but he is never diagnosed. His reading disorder is dismissed or improperly tested, and although he is intelligent, he can't differentiate between such simple words as "cat" and "sat."

If this boy reaches the fourth grade and is still unable to read, according to national statistics, there is a 75 percent chance he will never catch up.

"The numbers are so large that a new way to look at it is to find out what the cost is of not addressing it, what that does to children and parents and schools," proposes Bill Hilgers, president of the Scottish Rite Learning Center of Austin and organizing chairman of the Dyslexia Research Foundation of Texas.

National averages estimate that dyslexia affects one in five people. The newly formed Dyslexia Research Foundation intends to develop a series of reports for policymakers and the community proving that early detection, intervention, and remediation of learning disabilities such as dyslexia saves money. By investing in a child with dyslexia, local, state, or federal governments can offset the social costs that could be incurred later.

Texas law states that schools must identify students with dyslexia early, and provide them with individualized instruction. Yet, many of these students remain unidentified, and have low self-esteem. As they struggle through school - or drop out - and are unable to find a job because of their lack of education, the chance they will commit crimes increases.

"If you wait beyond the fifth grade, the child may think he's a failure, that there's something wrong with him. If that child drops out, that means a huge cost to his family, to himself and to his future."
— Bill Hilgers

One in three prisoners in the state of Texas is functionally illiterate, meaning they can only read well enough to get by. Unable to fill out a job application or read a textbook, these prisoners often return to society only to and continue a cycle of recidivism.

Hilgers hopes the Dyslexia Research Foundation will influence public policy and provide more assistance to children before the problem gets out of hand. "Treatment can be at any age, but the actual benefits from early detection are much greater," Higlers said. "If you wait beyond the fifth grade, the child may think he's a failure, that there's something wrong with him. If that child drops out, that means a huge cost to his family, to himself and to his future."

"The prison population is especially challenging. What's the motivation `to educate them`?" asked Tony Fabelo, a board member and former Executive Director of the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council.

"They cost you a bunch of money," added Fabelo, answering his own question. "`Prisoners` keep going back. The lower their education, the more obstacles they have. It's sheer economics: give them more tools to reintegrate."

Hilgers projects his study can prove more than 60 percent of prisoners have reading disabilities, and according to Fabelo, studies show 41 percent of illiterate prisoners have some form of dyslexia. He noted that the lack of research is one of the biggest problems preventing funding for dyslexia.

"The study has three phases," explained Hilgers. "A demographic phase to see what's being done in the schools right now; a measuring phase to test children to see if they are in fact dyslexic; and an econometric phase that will determine if there is a child at risk, what is the likely cost of waiting to detect and treat it."

"It's a pioneer effort," noted Fabelo. "Nothing has been done like this in the whole country."

Hilgers said that the foundation has the right people to make an impact. "Everyone I've asked to be on the board has accepted," he notes of a distinguished group that includes former U.S. Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall and University of Texas Executive Vice-President and Provost Dr. Sheldon Ekland-Olson. "We've had an amazing response and a great deal of interest."

But making the leap from problem to solution will take time. Hilgers hopes that research will begin as early as this summer and results will be available within a year. Stressing the early stages of the research, Fabelo cautioned: "We're not going to have answers in the next six months. Any of these studies will take two to three years to have maximum impact." Once proper funding is secured, Fabelo said the research can begin for a study that will "help state and local officials better understand the problem and how to deal with it."

And though Hilgers acknowledged the foundation doesn't claim to have any definitive answers, "One thing is quite clear: We want to make a solid foundation of facts about what the state has right now, and what will be the most cost effective thing to do with them." •

By Abraham Mahshie


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