Category Archives: Reasonable Accommodations

Dyslexia and Exams; the unfairness of it all.

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I didn’t realize it at the time, but rearing young children is a doddle compared to trying to help young adults navigate their way through school, to college, to their first job, through peer pressure and all the angst that comes along with growing up and growing away from ones parents.  The problems faced by us parents at a time when what is important to our children is that “so-and-so said such and such to me and I’m not their friend any more”, seem huge at the time, but are nothing compared to the angst suffered by our young adult children in their search for the right path. Simply put, the stakes are higher. Simply put the pressure is greater – on them and on us as parents helping out on their behalf.   Had anyone sat me down when my children were younger and said to me, it gets harder, I would have laughed. Having three children under the age of four was tough. It required a type of organization and effectiveness that was at times hard to juggle with the actual realities of life with three small children. They didn’t want to co-operate with my efficient plans; in other words, life got in the way. The best-laid plans very often went astray within the first few hours of the day, but to be effective (and you have to be with such small children), I learned to roll with it as best I could, as often as I could.

“Don’t worry, its gets easier”, was the refrain I heard from older mothers. “Don’t worry, they don’t stay small forever” etc etc.. No they don’t; and the problems one faces change too. I have not much to complain about. My children were all fit and healthy for most of their life. A bout with chicken pox that crossed the blood brain barrier in my three year old daughter was the only time I came face to face with an illness that was potentially life altering. But it wasn’t and she recovered after a spell in hospital and all became right again with the world, with my world.

My kids were all diagnosed with dyslexia in early childhood. For a time, I lost all focus and perspective. When my oldest son Gary was diagnosed, I felt at the time ‘there goes his future…’; all the plans I had for him were now down the toilet. But again, order was restored to my world when I put his difficulties in perspective and went about ensuring he had the help, support, understanding and commitment of all his teachers, his tutors and a workshop where I enrolled him to help with the difficulties that arise with dyslexia. After he was enrolled, then my daughter was diagnosed, and then my youngest son. Coping with one dyslexic child is easy compared to the commitment it takes to cope with three of them. Getting them the help they need is costly; workshops are expensive, tutors are expensive and then the time you as a parent need to invest in their education seems at times exhaustive. I gave up work for five years and ferried them to tutors, to workshops, I educated myself as to what exactly this means for them, I sat on school boards, the parents association and the board of the Dyslexic Association of Ireland all with the express purpose of helping my children to the best of my ability.

Then your children make their way through school slowly and not easily. Every parent teacher meeting and every report goes pretty much the same; teachers telling me my child is a bit unfocused and must try harder and me telling them about their dyslexia and how it affects each child. Some teachers embraced my knowledge, asked for more information and in collaboration we helped my child(ren) through their years in school. Other teachers scoffed, dismissed the diagnosis, vetoed my suggestions as to how to get the best from my child and openly discouraged my intimate involvement with their education. I was, I suppose the epitome of a pushy Mum. And I make no apology for that.   I did whatever I could, whenever I could. I championed their cause because at that young age, they could not advocate for themselves.

As they got older however, there comes a time when you have to let go of their hand and let them walk alone. Towards the end of their time in secondary school I did that with mine, I let them take responsibility for their education, but I never let them do it alone. I was always there, at the sidelines, ready to take up the baton at a moments notice.

My eldest received what is termed “accommodations” during his state exams for the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate state examinations. He got extra time, a reader and a separate room where he could concentrate to the best of his ability. The accommodations he received were not in any way to give him an advantage over any of his peers, it was simply to ‘level the playing field’ so that he could complete his exams to the best of his ability. He has a reading, writing and processing deficit that puts him in the lowest 2% for his age group. His IQ is above average. But the slow processing, writing and reading speeds, put him at a distinct disadvantage when having to sit examinations even with the ‘accommodations’.   Simply put he tanks!

I understand this, he understands this, we realize that the results he gets in examinations are not the true measure of who he is, or of his ability. Unfortunately for people like my son whose difficulties are profound, they are measured by the results of exams and nothing more. Pathways to third level education are only through the results of examinations. In the past when private colleges would accept students on to courses according to the ability to pay, not the natural ability of a student, it meant that there was some hope for those who didn’t quite make the grade in their exams. All that has changed now.  I understand the reasoning behind it, of course it is to protect the ‘integrity of the examinations process’ and to ensure that students who would not have the ability to complete a college course don’t start it. It is to protect them from failure. But what if failure in examinations is all they have experienced?  What happens to this person? What is to be their life, their future? So much emphasis is placed on examinations that in a few years time will mean absolutely nothing. So much of a persons future is determined by what they can or can’t do once they leave school and head on for college – or don’t. Years ago, it was not such a big deal if you didn’t attend college. My generation is filled with people who still managed to make a success of their lives and create a successful career without ever sitting in another classroom once they finished second level education. That is however not the case for this generation, the generation of my children. With so much competition these days for any sort of a job, getting even a start-up or part-time job is extremely difficult. You can’t get a job without experience, and you can’t get experience without a job. And by the way, do you have a degree??!

So for young adults like my son, the route to a ‘career’ will be a much longer and more arduous one. When I think of what he is capable of, but is hindered by, it makes me extremely annoyed at our current system. It is also the most heartbreaking thing to watch, seeing your young adult child devastated because of another failure and reaching the end to a particular path they wanted to journey on. Knowing that as a parent I can do nothing to help is one of the most difficult things to accept. There is an inherent unfairness in a system that measures ones ability simply by a series of results in a test. Because you received the points necessary to study to become a doctor does not mean you should be one, or would even be a good one. So this ‘system of measurement’ is flawed. It is the only one we have, but it doesn’t mean it is right.

William Butler Yeats said that “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”. Our system of education fills the pail. Any education system that only fills the pail and doesn’t light or ignite the fire for knowledge or thirst for learning for learnings’ sake is doomed to fail in the long run.

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The Fight’s not over till the battle is lost….

When you have a son or daughter with a disability, no one knows what they go through better than you; their parent or guardian. I have three children who were diagnosed with dyslexia. My eldest son, Gary was diagnosed at the age of 10 which is quite late for such a diagnosis. Normally dyslexia is caught in children much earlier. He was diagnosed through NEPs in third class of Primary school. Since then I have watched this, now young man, struggle with his difficulty on a daily basis as he tries to do tasks that any person without his disability would find a doddle. I have watched as he battled with ‘stress induced’ migraines because of the effort involved for him in doing normal tasks you or I would enjoy; reading, copying down material, processing information and trying to retain it, then regurgitate it at exam time. I have watched as he walked to school with shoulders so hunched over he looked like Quasimodo. I have listened as he was praised by some teachers and berated by others for the work he did in school. I have done all this, with only one goal in mind; to get him through our education system and out the other end intact.
Along the way as a parent I have done everything in my power to help all my children. They attended the Kilcock Dyslexia Association workshops for years, they also attended a private tutor again for years and I took a sabbatical from work for five of years so that I could help them at home; be there when they got home from school to soothe their bruised confidences, help with homework and support them as much as I could. But this isn’t about me; this is about children like my sons and daughter who stumble through primary and secondary school with ever decreasing help and support because special needs assistants and remedial care is being slowly eroded. Not only that, but when our children go to sit their Junior and Leaving Certificate examinations, reasonable accommodations for those in need are being denied. For the 2012 leaving certificate examinations, a total of 3,940 candidates applied for a waiver from the spelling and grammar element of language subjects. Of these, 2,587 or 66% were granted and 1,353 or 34% were refused. That’s only for the spelling and grammar waiver. (This is the part that costs no money to grant!!) Of the unsuccessful applicants for reasonable accommodations in 2012, 513 made an appeal to the independent appeals committee. Of these appeals, 32 were successful while the original decision made by the commission was upheld in the remaining cases. Statistically speaking, just over 5% of candidates who appealed were successful.
The hushed explanations from various different professionals within the field is that these services are being cut and reasonable accommodations are being denied because of what appears to be ‘budgetary constraints’. So if you believe these ‘hushed’ explanations our children’s futures are being given a monetary value by bean counters. I used to think the system was relatively fair and that if your child’s need was great, it would be met. I used to think that if a registered professional vehemently argued for reasonable accommodations on the basis of a severe need, it would be listened to and given the weight it deserved. This year my son was denied reasonable accommodations for his leaving certificate along with lots of other young men and women. We appealed the decision because an up to date psychological report suggested his dyslexia was much worse than the schools in-house standardised tests had suggested. The denial was upheld, despite the professional educational psychologist who tested him, strongly recommending this decision was reversed as a matter of urgency. Her report was not given the weight I assumed it would carry, her report, to her absolute incredulity never mind ours, appeared to have been ignored. The Minister for Education Mr Ruairi Quin is said to be satisfied that the scheme’s application and appeal processes operate in an open and transparent manner. Yet when the school received notification our appeal had been denied, the letter gave no meaningful information as to WHY our appeal had been denied; it stated simply that it had been denied. This is not transparent or open? By denying us the relevant details, we were in effect being dissuaded from appealing that appeal decision on the proper basis. The system in operation by the SEC, the Reasonable Accommodations in Certificate Examinations (RACE) is as follows: an initial request for accommodations are sent in by the school normally at the end of 5th year. By December of the exam year, the school is informed whether the student has been approved for or denied reasonable accommodations. If you are not happy with the result there is an appeals process and you are given the right of appeal. This appeal is then reviewed by an independent panel of NEPs psychologists and either overturned or upheld. Our appeal was upheld, which meant my son was being denied his reader and spelling and grammar waiver.
Despite being told by staff at the reasonable accommodations division there was no right of appeal against a rejection of an appeal, I could not let that decision stand. My son has a reading age of 10.4 years, he has just turned 19. His reading fluency is at the 4nd percentile. His writing fluency is at the 2nd percentile, his spelling is at the 2nd percentile and his maths fluency is down at the 1st percentile. There is no doubt that he is the epitome of what these reasonable accommodations were designed for; to give my child a fighting chance in state examinations by levelling the playing field for those struggling with such crippling difficulties. It was profoundly incomprehensible to me as to why his appeal was denied. The only recourse was to go down the route of a Judical Appeal. In effect this means getting your childs case before the High Court and as those two words suggest, this is a very costly exercise. As parents, we decided on this course of action; it wasn’t really a choice for us, it was a necessity for our son’s sake; but alongside that, I emailed every contact I had, every TD in my area and indeed outside of my area, every TD who had ever uttered a word about education and also directed an email to Minister Quin himself. I sent a copy of Gary’s educational psychological report to every TD and synopsised the report for them in layman’s terms. In effect, I also put a human face on that rejection: I put my sons face on that rejection. I emailed the RACE committee, the SEC, the head of the SEC and spoke to various contacts I have made through my connection with the DAI over the years. I bombarded them with phone calls and followed up my emails with personal pleas to all those TD’s. Ms Patricia Timoney, the psychologist who had reviewed Gary was speechless that our appeal had been denied and she arranged for Gary to come back to her and sit a time/error trial. Despite being told not to appeal again, I did. I sent letters with the time trial attached which showed my son had a spelling/grammar error rate of 16.8%. (RACE guidelines suggest an error rate of 8% is sufficient for the granting of the waiver.) I firmly believe, in the end, it was the political pressure that had been brought to bear which allowed the SEC to take one further look at my sons appeal. The time/error trial was the evidence needed to overturn his appeal denial and he was granted his reasonable accommodations.
As a parent of a child with significant learning difficulties I am furious that we had to go through all this to get him what he should be entitled to as a matter of course. The stress was exhausting, but the pressure we brought to bear has had the ultimate achievement of getting him what he needs. I would do it all again tomorrow. My advice to any other parent/guardian facing the same situation out there is this: don’t give up, don’t give in and continue to fight till there really is no hope left; that is the day your child starts his first exam.

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Filed under dyslexia, education, Reasonable Accommodations