HIGHGATE — Brittany Lovejoy is on a campaign to change the world for dyslexic children.
All four of the children she has with husband, Jay Spaulding, have dyslexia, a hereditary learning disability that researchers believe impacts as many as one in five people.
People with dyslexia are often bright and creative – famous dyslexics include Steve Jobs – but have difficulties with reading and writing.
For Lovejoy’s eight-year-old twins, Julia and Rita that difficulty made school an extraordinarily stressful environment.
Rita, described by the Stern Center as “vivacious,” became a different person after attending first grade. “She went to public school and six months later I had a child I couldn’t talk to,” said Lovejoy. “She just started shutting off and shutting down.”
According to Lovejoy, at one point, Rita whispered, “I could kill myself.”
Asked about school, Julia said, “I felt bad.”
In a video the family made with Northwest Public Access to explain dyslexia Rita said, “I thought I was dumb,” while Julia explained that she would get stomach aches and was afraid to ask questions when she didn’t understand because the other kids might think she was dumb.
Rita says a paraeducator told her, “You should know your B’s and D’s by now.”
One morning when Spaulding took the girls to school, Rita and Julia cried the entire way there. The next day, their parents reduced their school attendance to half days. This past year Lovejoy taught them at home.
The girls have been identified by the Stern Center for Language & Learning as having strong visual skills. They prefer math and science to reading and writing. At home, Lovejoy offers them alternatives to writing to explain their ideas, such as creating skits, while still doing daily writing and reading instruction.
“It’s hard to read and talk,” said Rita, who is still able to explain why the planet Venus is hotter than Mercury even though it is farther from the sun. “It has an atmosphere,” she said.
All four Spaulding children will be spending time with Stern Center tutors this summer. Ten-year-old Madeline made the honor roll three times this year, but is only at the fifth percentile in reading, meaning 95 percent of fourth graders are more skilled readers than she is.
She likes school, but not reading aloud, especially if she makes a mistake on an easy word. “Sometimes that will get a little bit embarrassing, but I get over it pretty fast,” she said.
P.J., who is five, was diagnosed as dyslexic while in pre-school by the Stern Center but the school questioned the diagnosis. According to Lovejoy, the school’s attitude was, “We need to wait and see if this is full-blown dyslexia.”
“Which means we need to watch him fail,” Lovejoy added.
When P.J. entered pre-school he knew seven letters, when tested by the Stern Center a few months later he knew three, Lovejoy said. He now knows 22, and works with his parents on learning two new letters each week. Spaulding will pretend not to know what sound a letter makes so his son can explain it to him.
All four children will be receiving tutoring from the center this summer. Her children are lucky, Lovejoy admits. They have parents who can pay for the additional tutoring, provide extensive support at home, and can afford to have one parent not working. They’ve also hired an advocate to assist them with securing services the children need from the school.
But not all families have those resources. “I’m doing this for those kids,” said Lovejoy, who spent time in Washington D.C. this week lobbying lawmakers on behalf of children with dyslexia. “It will take an act of Congress to help dyslexic children in our school system,” said Lovejoy.
“I’m not blaming schools or the teachers. This is not a blame game,” she said.
Instead, she said, the issue is one of resources and training.
Lovejoy heads the Vermont chapter of Decoding Dyslexia, a national advocacy organization for parents of dyslexic children. The group advocates mandatory training for teachers in identifying dyslexia and appropriate interventions, as well as mandatory screening for children.
With the right instruction and assistance children with dyslexia can learn to read and read well, according to experts.
Vermont’s most famous person with dyslexia, Gov. Peter Shumlin, has agreed to sign a proclamation written by Lovejoy declaring October Dyslexia Awareness Month.
Lovejoy, however, wants the state to do more. Vermont currently lacks an official definition of dyslexia to guide schools and the Agency of Education, she notes.
Shumlin was a strong supporter of the recently passed bill making preschool available to all Vermont children. He has said the bill will enable all Vermont school children to be ready to learn when they enter kindergarten, but Lovejoy questions how that can happen if preschool teachers are not trained to identify dyslexia and use appropriate interventions.
Lovejoy said, “If we want every child to arrive at school ready to learn then we need to prescreen children for dyslexia and provide direct explicit instruction to the twenty percent of students in need. Only then will these children arrive at school ready to learn.”
Like Shumlin, Lovejoy points to the social costs of illiteracy. In Vermont, 90 percent of prisoners have failed to complete high school and many are illiterate.
Lovejoy wonders how many are dyslexic and how many could have learned to read with the proper interventions, suggesting that investing in reaching the approximately 20 percent of people who are dyslexic could pay off in reduced social costs.
“When someone feels like a failure, what do they become in society?” she asked.
Lovejoy has seen the impact of that shame and feelings of failure in her own children.
Her husband knows it first hand. Although he now owns his own landscaping business, he, too, struggled in school. Undiagnosed, he knew he had a learning disability.
“Throughout my years of early education I felt ashamed and sometimes embarrassed,” Spaulding said in an email.
He developed his own methods to compensate, such as “studying unbelievable hours just to achieve a C (maybe a B on a very good day) on a test. Trying to memorize things that I knew that after the test I would never remember. Trying to do word recognitions or any type of tricks throughout the day – whatever it took.
“I hid this from everyone. My mom used to make me write and rewrite letters at the kitchen table for what seemed liked hours to help produce perfect handwriting. My parents hired an after school tutor for me. I feel that if it wasn’t for my parents supporting me, my social popularity, and my natural ability at sports that I may have taken a different path in my life.”
The Facebook page for Decoding Dyslexia in Vermont may be found at Decoding Dyslexia- VT.