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dys1As of August 2013, the State of New Jersey has taken two giant steps forward in special education law thanks to its legislature and Governor Chris Christie. New Jersey’s special education regulations now officially define “Dyslexia” as a disability (Assembly Bill 3608) and school districts must now provide professional development opportunities for dyslexia and reading disabilities (Assembly Bills 3606 and 3607). While there is more work to be done in this area, other states should, if they haven’t already, follow the lead of the Garden State.

Undiagnosed Reading Difficulties
Previously, although dyslexia was a recognized disability in the special education regulations, the neurological disorder wasn’t defined. Often, as a result, a child’s reading difficulties went undiagnosed and therefore not addressed in the child’s special education, for example in his/her Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Teachers were not trained on how to spot it or to recognize it from test results, nor were they trained on how to provide services to help a child even when a reading disability was diagnosed.

The new regulations grew out of the results and impact of the case known as A.W. v. Jersey City Public Schools (486 F.3d 791 (3rd Cir. 2007)). In that case, the student wasn’t diagnosed properly with dyslexia until he was a 20-year-old 10th grader. The parents sued for failing to identify the disorder and for failing to provide the child with special education services to help him succeed. Ultimately, the case went up to the federal appeals court twice and then settled, but one of the key chasms in the case was that there was no definition, no training, and no testing to spot the disability.

Hopefully these new regulations will help prevent a similar occurrence.

Screening for Reading Disabilities
Another piece of pending legislation in New Jersey’s Legislature would be another great step in the right direction. Specifically, the proposed regulation would require that all public schools screen every child for dyslexia and other reading disabilities by the end of first grade (Senate Bill 2442). If the screening detects a reading disability, the identified child would then be entitled to a full assessment for the disability. However, at this time it isn’t clear if this bill will pass both houses or be signed into law by the Governor. The assumption is that the regulations just passed must be given some time to prepare teachers and schools for the testing criteria and to be trained on analyzing test results. In addition, costs of such screening will be substantial and budgets do not presently contemplate the additional expense.

However, the laws do not guarantee that children will be properly identified and thereafter provided with appropriate services and/or early interventions, which are as critical in reading disabilities as with autism. This will only come with sufficient education and training of school officials, teachers and therapists. Zealous advocacy by parents and special education attorneys is necessary to protect such kids during this transition period.

Other states can (and should) learn and adopt these positive measures. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) , approximately two million school age children are thought to have dyslexia or reading disabilities, regardless of their current diagnosis status (NCLD, Learning Disability Fast Facts). Citing the same data, 20% of students with learning disabilities drop out and only 67% graduate with a regular diploma (NCLD, Learning Disability Fast Facts). Thanks to advocacy groups like Decoding Dyslexia (now organized in 32 states), there is a movement developing towards better regulations and services to redress these problems.

While you may disagree with Governor Christie on other grounds, for school kids with dyslexia in New Jersey he is a hero.

Assembly Bills 3606 and 3607. New Jersey special education regulations now require the Department of Education to provide professional development opportunities related to reading disabilities and mandates certain school district personnel annually complete two hours of professional development related to reading disabilities.

Assembly Bill 3608.  The New Jersey Legislature directs the State Board of Education to incorporate the International Dyslexia Association’s definition of dyslexia into special education regulations.

NCLD, Learning Disability Fast Facts.

Senate Bill 2442.

486 F.3d 791 (3rd Cir. 2007).