Blacks, Latinos Confront Dyslexia Diagnosis Gap

By the time he reached 7th grade, Izer Martinez had attended eight different schools. He wasn’t a problem child. He hadn’t been kicked out. He and his parents were simply trying to find a school that would look past his dyslexia to see what he could achieve. 

Martinez spoke about his experiences Monday at a conference that launched the Multicultural Dyslexia Awareness Initiative, a new program from the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. The conference drew more than 150 attendees from across the country to discuss how they could use advocacy and education to increase awareness of dyslexia among black and Latino communities.

Martinez served as a poster child for a new message: that the under-diagnosis of dyslexia among minorities is a pressing civil rights issue.

Dyslexia, a developmental reading disorder, causes difficulties with spelling, reading, writing, and finding the proper words when speaking. A child might be unable to read the word volcano, or might say the similar-sounding “tornado” when presented with a picture, even though he or she knows what a volcano is.

Though children with dyslexia may be labeled “dumb” or “lazy,” the center’s co-director Sally Shaywitz said, the disorder is actually marked by high levels of intelligence. Dyslexics tend to be creative, “out-of-the-box” thinkers and possess strong reasoning skills. Studies have shown that in dyslexia, a child’s reading ability and IQ level are worlds apart, even though people often take reading ability – or inability – as an indicator of intelligence, Shaywitz said.

In the United States, more than 10 million children live with the disorder. Dyslexia is the most common learning disability and affects one in five children.

Yet, the disorder often goes undiagnosed. Issues with reading may get attributed to a lack of intelligence or effort. Teachers of undiagnosed students may never have heard of dyslexia. Many dyslexics aren’t diagnosed until high school, college, or even middle age. Some never receive an explanation for their struggles with reading.

This under-diagnosis is even more pronounced among minority communities, according to Shaywitz.

The purpose of the conference, one of the initiative’s leaders, Keith Magee, said, is not only to inform, but to gather information about what can be done to diagnose and then support those with dyslexia.

“There’s an overwhelming number of children of color who are untested and undiagnosed,” Magee said. “People know there’s a literacy issue, but they don’t realize it’s dyslexia.” By bringing educators, policymakers, faith leaders, attorneys, and scientists together, he said, the initiative hopes to build a movement for change.

Treating dyslexia is an issue of civil rights, organizers emphasized. “All these people are marginalized,” Magee said. “There are all these barriers they can’t cross because they haven’t been accommodated.”

These accommodations include extra time on school exams and standardized testing. Additional time allows dyslexic students to reconcile their slow reading speed with their high level of thinking, Shaywitz said. It gives them a chance to show what they know. “Without time, even the most knowledgeable person can’t show that knowledge,” Shaywitz said. In one study, test results shot up from 12 percent to 75 percent correct when dyslexic students received extra time.

Informing teachers about the disorder and placing dyslexic children in small classes will also help, Shaywitz said.

Other conference speakers included the singer and actor Harry Belafonte, Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer Victor Villasenor, and an associate dean of the Duke School of Medicine, Dr. Brenda Armstrong.

In one panel, three teens – Gloria Clark, Joseph Harris, and Izer Martinez – described their experiences with the disorder. The three provided suggestions for a 6th grader in the audience who just learned he has dyslexia. Sit in the front row in class. Find what makes you passionate about school. Get involved with sports – a realm where no one will know you’re dyslexic, Clark said.

“Find the beauty of it. That’s when it’s going to get better,” Harris added. “And once you find it, it’s like oh my gosh.”

For Harris, this beauty is his talent in art and architecture, an ability he credits to the creative thinking often found in those with dyslexia.

For Clark, it’s a love of reading and writing. As a child, she worried she’d end up homeless because she couldn’t read. Now, she is a published author and she performed one of her original poems for the conference.

Martinez, who’s from Chicago, bounced around between eight schools before finding one in Buffalo, New York that specializes in helping kids with learning differences. He now studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He went from goofing off in class as a child, a tactic to avoid having to read aloud, to sitting in the front row in college lecture halls and tackling hundreds of pages a week in assigned reading.

Though having dyslexia can be difficult, Clark said, the important thing is to keep trying. “Don’t give up. I used to tell myself that every day before school,” she said. “It’s going to be hard, but don’t give up.”

The initiative will hold five more conferences by the end of the year in locations across the country: Washington D.C., Atlanta, Houston, San Francisco, and Cleveland.

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posted by: hayesatlbch on August 7, 2013  2:36pm

I am not impressed with Shaywitz as an expert. I don’t know if she doesn’t read the research or just doesn’t agree.

” the disorder is actually marked by high levels of intelligence.“Shaywitz quote from article.

There has never been a study that has concluded that dyslexics have a different IQ distribution than the general populace. People with very low IQ’s ( below 60)are difficult to diagnose and often excluded from the dyslexia population but to be fair then they should be excluded from the general population statistics for comparison .

Why care about people promoting the feel good concept that “Johnny the dyslexic” must be smart because dyslexics are smart ? Because lower IQ dyslexics are another minority that is being excluded as having the possibility of being dyslexic. Studies have concluded that lower IQ dyslexics benefit as much from interventions as higher IQ dyslexics.

Shaywitz is famed as an expert for her fMRI dyslexia studies and yet fMRI subjects in those studies are determined as being dyslexic or not with pen and paper tests and interviews. Shaywitz can not diagnose anyone as being dyslexic or not by fMRI. She also promotes that the fundamental cause of dyslexia is phonological problems when the biggest and best study finds that 12% of dyslexics have no phonological problems .

”  Magee said. “People know there’s a literacy issue, but they don’t realize it’s dyslexia.”
At the risk of being politically incorrect, dyslexia is only one component as there are many more people with literacy issues than can be accounted by the 5-20% rate of dyslexia. Poverty and unfunded schools account for more literacy problems than dyslexia.

If blacks and Latinos want to deal with dyslexia issues please don’t let anyone define the lower IQ population out of being tested.

My niche is visual dyslexia ( about 10% of dyslexics ). Most visual dyslexics can describe the visual problems that make reading difficult . Visit for more information.

posted by: Mr. Brad Rogers on August 7, 2013  8:45pm

Dr.s Shaywitz are leaders in the field of both research and teaching application of dyslexia education. Based on their vast publications, lectures, and origional contributions to the field, we owe them a generous tip of the hat. The young man named Izer in this well written piece is a former student of mine. I had the distinct honor of being his teacher and mentor at The Gow School in Buffalo, NY. At age 12, Izer joined us as a fagile yet creative learner who quickly learned to cope and compensate for his academic stuggles. After six years at Gow (, Izer quickly emerged as a leader and academic work horse. His social and emtional intellegences prospered and he now attends an Ivy League school with a plan to expand our working knowlegde of dyslexia. I join his parents as we burst with pride! As teachers and school leaders we must take a good lesson from Izer and the other two successful young people discribed in this piece. Grit matters and we can teach not only academic skills but also those real life tools necessary to conquere all obsticles including heritage barriers. Bravo to Team Shaywitz and those at Yale who organized this meaningful conference. Parents, students, teachers, and all dyslexic learners, there is great hope and promise for you all. May grit and innner stregnth be part of your building blocks for success. Brad Rogers, Headmaster, The Gow School, Buffalo, NY.

posted by: hayesatlbch on August 7, 2013  11:24pm

“Dr.s Shaywitz are leaders in the field of both research and teaching application of dyslexia education.”

And as leaders who people respect in the field of dyslexia they should qualify their statements and not imply characteristics that are common to most dyslexics as being common to all dyslexics or promote the myth that dyslexics have a different IQ distribution than the general population.

That higher IQ dyslexics stand out more because of higher expectations for their reading skills and so are more likely to be identified and diagnosed does not justify the idea that dyslexics are generally above average.

I would be satisfied if they qualified their statements to be that diagnosed dyslexics are generally smarter than average. That is true but only because there is a self fulfilling idea that only smarter people should be suspected of being dyslexic.

I would think that minority groups that have received poor consideration for dyslexia identification and intervention would be sensitive to the exclusion of below average IQ dyslexics by implication rather than fact. You do understand that the Saywitzs aren’t looking for below average IQ dyslexics and so any program of theirs will likely not identify any minority below average dyslexics.

I guess I can understand. It is just like Pandas and tigers getting all the endangered species money because people feel better helping them rather than snail darters.

I understand . It is more satisfying helping a high IQ dyslexic graduate from H.S. and college rather than drop out compared to helping a lower IQ dyslexic learn to read well enough to get that minimum wage job.

I am also not a big fan of dyslexia experts that fail to acknowledge there are a non-trivial amount of dyslexics that fail to respond to phonological based interventions because they don’t have phonological problems as causal.

I guess just be happy that they are trying to help the smart and phonologically impaired majority of dyslexics.