A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community. This is the first of two articles about how V.I. public schools help children with dyslexia.
“Does the bee letter go this way, ‘b,’ or that way, ‘d’?”
I can still remember the panic I felt when I whispered this question to the little girl in the desk next to mine, as the teacher made her way down the rows of first graders, quizzing us on our alphabet. Luckily for me, Sandra Edwards had no doubt in her mind: ‘b’.
Most of us outgrow these niggling uncertainties, but for a small percentage of the population, letter and even numeral reversals remain a challenge throughout life. Such spatial difficulties are one of the more common indications of dyslexia, a condition in which the brain perceives things slightly differently from how the majority of people perceive them.
Other indications include difficulty putting thoughts into words, transposing words or phrases, omitting letters in words, using incomplete sentences, even seeing nonexistent movement when writing or copying text. Some may even feel dizzy or nauseous when they peruse a printed page.
There are almost as many variations of the condition as there are people who are saddled with it, but there is a common denominator: Dyslexia puts people at a distinct disadvantage in learning to read and, since our education system is primarily reading-based, at succeeding academically.
Still, many dyslexic people beat the odds. Take physicist Pierre Curie or comedienne Whoopi Goldberg, for instance – or the man whose name became synonymous with “genius,” Albert Einstein.
Researchers are still unclear about a lot of things related to dyslexia, but one thing they are pretty certain of is that people with dyslexia are generally of at least average intelligence and often above-average. It seems to affect an equal number of males and females, and while it appears to be genetically linked, it is not particularly prevalent in any race or ethnic group.
The rate of occurrence has nothing to do with social or economic conditions either, although these may make a difference in how well an individual is able to deal with dyslexia.
Estimates of the numbers of people who are dyslexic vary.
The “Dyslexia Help” website says 5 to 10 percent of the population is probably dyslexic, but says that some sources suggest the number may be closer to 17 percent. The “Learning Inside Out” website puts the figure at between 15 percent and 20 percent.
Virgin Islands numbers fall at and beneath the lower end of these national estimates.
The territory’s Department of Education, Special Education Division publishes an assessment of the number of disabled children and youth in the public system as of December each year.
In 2014, the number of special needs persons ages 3 to 21 in the St. Croix district was 673, with roughly half that number being children who are learning disabled, according to Oneida Granger, a special education supervisor on St. Croix.
The department doesn’t test for learning disabled children until the age of 6, so there is not a direct correlation, she said. However, the number of individuals in the system, ages 6-21, who were determined to be learning disabled as of Dec. 1, 2014, was 350.
Dyslexia is the most common type of learning disability, accounting for at least 80 percent, according to national figures.
In the St. Thomas-St. John district, the count as of December 2014 was 506 disabled individuals aged 6 to 21, with 252 of those being specific learning disabled, according to Sheryl Serano-Griffith, special education district director.
With a total public school population of approximately 6,000 on St. Croix, those figures translate to a dyslexic population of about 5.8 percent. In the St. Thomas-St. John district, with an estimated total school population of 8,000, the number is even lower: just over 3 percent.
That could mean the territory’s numbers are actually lower than national averages. Or as Serano-Griffith suggests, it could mean, “There may be people within the population that may not be identified.”
To access the extra help available for dyslexic children, people first must know it’s there. And they must give their consent for an evaluation, which means facing down fears of being labeled different.
If anyone knows about the stigma attached to the terms “learning disabled” and “dyslexic,” it’s Granger.
She’s been an educator for more than 22 years, holds a master’s degree in special education, guidance counseling and education administration, and is a doctorial candidate in educational learning. She’s taught at the University of the Virgin Islands, hosted the local TV talk show Woman to Woman, and run unsuccessfully for the Legislature.
Granger says, “I did not learn how to read until I was 14 years old. … The name that was given to me was ‘lazy,’ ‘uncooperative,’ ‘not trying hard enough,’ ‘low achiever.’”
She recalls pushing other students ahead of her in line during spelling bees, even bribing them with candy to take her place.
Eventually Granger’s mother arranged for her to get extra help after school. She began to attend Mary Cutler Tutoring.
“I used to go through the back door because I was embarrassed,” Granger said. But she went.
Cutler, whom Granger suspects was dyslexic herself, taught her a lot of tricks, like tracing words in air to avoid the spaces between words that can be confusing for someone with dyslexia, and visualizing the word “bed” to help distinguish “b” and “d.”
Granger said she had a tendency to reverse the numeral “3” until Cutler showed her it was the reverse of a capital letter “E.” Likewise, a “7” was an upside down capital “L.”
“She worked with me for two years,” Granger said. “I went from the bottom of the class to the top of the class. … You just learn these tricks and you hold them for the rest of your life.”
In college, Granger took a tape recorder with her to class so she could record the lectures since taking notes was extremely difficult. She said she believes that technology is making a big difference for people with dyslexia, by opening up more ways to learn.
Granger likes to say that, for her, “LD” means not “learning disabled” but simply “learning differently.”
And dyslexia is a real challenge, not a sentence of failure.
(Next: Finding and helping dyslexic students in Virgin Islands schools.)