I was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD in third grade, something few people knew until I misspelled ‘Wednesday” in front of my students at my first teaching job, 14 years later. Many go through life as I did, hiding their LD or, even worse, completely unaware of it. 

When it comes to the needs of students with learning differences (LD), our education system too often settles for equality rather than strives for true equity. A school with programs to help every kid do better on tests — that’s equality. Now imagine if this same school failed to provide any test-day accommodations to disabled students. This is the difference between equality and equity. 

Students with LDs such as dyslexia or ADHD are often put in a corner, and I have been in their shoes. The pandemic has further obscured them

This cannot continue. Through my work with Eye to Eye, a national mentoring nonprofit focused on students with LDs, we work to cultivate advocacy and leadership skills to help drive a shift in public perceptions of learning differences. State and federal authorities are also responsible for directing a more targeted response to meet the one in five students with LDs where they are. The emergency COVID-19 relief aid provided through the American Rescue Plan is a necessary step but insufficient without more targeted policies. To create a more equitable classroom, education policy must not leave out the outliers. 

This is not to say there has been no progress. We are learning more about the brain, and that knowledge has helped us identify more children with LDs. During the 2017-2018 school year, most states saw an increase in their disabled student populations. These advancements should be celebrated because a host of students can be given the services they need, but they will mean nothing if we continue to leave these students behind. To reach them, we must adopt an approach of targeted universalism, pursuing goals for all groups concerned but achieving them through intentional strategies based on how different groups are situated — equity 2.0. 

About 7.3 million students nationwide receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). As the nation’s primary special education law, it reaches 14 percent of all public school kids and covers a wide range of needs: from students who struggle academically, to those who need emotional and behavioral support or require full-time help to access learning. Of these millions of students served under the IDEA, the LD community accounts for 33 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Despite LD being the most commonly recognized category of disability, our overly generalist policies during the pandemic have abandoned them. A one-size-fits-all learning policy does not suit all students, and certainly not all LD students. 

As the pandemic shifted education from the classroom to the computer screen, disabled students faced unique barriers: loss of individualized assistance, loss of social interaction with a smaller circle of friends and loss of routine that provided emotional balance. All contributed to a general loss of learning last spring that LD students felt more sharply, according to Shawn Ullman, a senior director of national initiatives at The Arc, a nonprofit disability advocacy group. Targeted universalism is necessary to address the disparity in the populations of students with disabilities across the country. New York state serves the largest share of students in special education (19.2 percent of public enrollment), while Texas has the lowest share (9.2 percent). These disparities are likely due to how each state determines which students are eligible for special education services and various challenges involved with detection.

Beyond a policy response, educators and parents must also recognize that silence is not a solution. The reticence to bring up the LD issue seems particularly prevalent among Black and Hispanic parents. In a study conducted by Understood, 54 percent of Hispanic parents have anxiety related to talking about their children’s learning challenges. Moreover, 51 percent of Hispanic parents decide not to pursue a diagnosis because their teachers don’t believe their children. This fear of spotlighting the issue only adds to the taboo. Instead, both educators and parents should be celebrating their children's LD identity. Teachers, especially, should open dialogues with LD students and empower them to fight for their rights. 

Without a doubt, we need more state and federal solutions to build a more equitable classroom. Eye to Eye can’t do it on its own. That is why we continue to establish new school sites and partnerships with school leaders, nonprofits, foundations and corporations, and train more chapter leaders at our Young Leaders Organizing Institute at Brown University, to reach those students in need of supportive and inspiring mentors. We must recognize the uniqueness of LD students, and do so without stigma. 

For too long, those with LD have seldom led the conversation or the movement. We must empower them to do so because the often evoked metaphor of a “rising tide lifting all boats” is inadequate. LD kids’ boats are sinking, and our current model is barely bailing water out.

Marcus Soutra is president of Eye to Eye, a national mentoring nonprofit focused on students with learning differences.

Published on Oct 26, 2021