“Dyslexia is important to Congress, and it’s important to the nation.”
So stated Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD), during a Senate hearing on dyslexia on May 10. She co-chaired the hearing with longtime dyslexia advocate Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA). It was a remarkable event in many ways.
The two-hour hearing took place in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. This influential committee rarely holds hearings on a single issue. So it was significant that they wanted to learn about dyslexia.
Below is a summary of the hearing testimony and senators’ reactions. (You can also watch a video of the full hearing.)
Personal Stories About Dyslexia
During the hearing, senators heard directly from people impacted by dyslexia:
- Ameer Baraka is now a successful actor who starred in American Horror Story. But he told senators how his reading struggles as a child led to a life of crime. He was diagnosed with dyslexia in his early 20s while in prison.
- David Boies is a famous lawyer. He’s argued some of the biggest cases of our time before the Supreme Court. He also won a leadership award from Understood founding partner the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) for his advocacy for people with learning and thinking differences. Boies told the senators that he and his two sons have dyslexia. He said his sons’ abilities were not always acknowledged by our education system.
- April Hanrath is the owner of a small business and an Understood parent advocate. She shared her journey of looking for help for her daughter Jocelyn, who has dyslexia. Jocelyn, who sat behind her mother at the hearing, is now on her way to college. She’s the 2016 winner of NCLD’s Allegra Ford Thomas scholarship.
Testimony From Top Dyslexia Researchers
Senators also heard from top researchers on the science of dyslexia.
- Dr. Sally Shaywitz is co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity. She talked about the impact of dyslexia on society. She noted that students with dyslexia often drop out of school. They may struggle in the workplace. Our schools can help, she said, through early detection of dyslexia.
- Dr. Guinevere Eden is part of Georgetown’s Center for the Study of Learning. She’s a pioneer in the use of brain imaging to study dyslexia, and an Understood expert. Eden told senators about recent advances in our understanding of dyslexia. But she said more research was needed. Eden was also concerned that research findings weren’t making it into the hands of teachers.
- Dr. Mark Mahone is a neuropsychologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. He said kids with dyslexia benefit from evidence-based language instruction, but many aren’t getting the help they need. That’s a problem, he said.
Senators’ Reaction to the Testimony
The goal of the hearing was for Congress and the public to learn about dyslexia. The senators were clearly listening.
“We don’t often have the opportunity to focus on one issue in a very intensive way,” remarked Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA). “This is indeed an all-star panel. So we are grateful.”
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) agreed and shared his personal story. Bennet had been held back in second grade because of his struggles with dyslexia. Thankfully, he got the right services to help him with reading. As an adult, he went on to become a school superintendent and a U.S. Senator.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) noted that voters in his state were concerned about dyslexia. He related the story of a mother in Connecticut who had difficulty getting her child’s needs met.
Sen. Cassidy co-chaired and guided the hearing. Cassidy, whose daughter has dyslexia, spoke about how expensive it was for families to get the right help for their kids. He noted there were some great private schools that do a good job of educating kids with dyslexia. But he added that the cost is too high for many families.
Cassidy noted there has been some progress. He pointed to the READ Act, which allocates funding for dyslexia research. Congress also authorized a comprehensive literacy center for reading issues, said Cassidy. And he called out the recent U.S. Department of Education letter that says it’s OK for schools to use the term dyslexia in .
But we can and should do more, he said. It’s time for “science to begin driving policy.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) also called for action on the science. She urged Congress to approve more money for dyslexia research.
Sen. Mikulski agreed with the need for research. She added that helping kids with dyslexia takes resources. Therefore, she said, Congress must fully fund the , which helps schools pay for services.
Takeaways From the Hearing on Dyslexia
In the end, it was the parent witness, April Hanrath, who may have summed up the hearing best. She told the panel of senators there were three things she wanted them to remember:
- Kids with dyslexia must be identified at young age so they can get the help they need.
- Teachers must get the right training on dyslexia so they can help parents and students.
- Parents and educators must have high expectations for kids with dyslexia.
It was such a powerful and succinct message that Sen. Casey made a point to repeat it for his colleagues. After praising Hanrath, he added a fourth point to remember: “Have a good mom or dad or caregiver who is engaged.”
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About the author
Geri Coleman Tucker is a freelance writer and editor and a former deputy managing editor for