Imagine that you can’t read. You can tell a story that keeps your audience riveted and you can spell challenging words out loud, but when it comes to reading or writing, the words on the page just don’t make sense to you. You’re very bright and you try very hard, yet you’re labeled as lazy, “not trying hard enough,” or even dumb. As your classmates move ahead, you struggle, fall behind, and spend every day wondering, “What’s wrong with me?” This is life for a child – and quite often, an adult – with dyslexia.
Dyslexia is a learning disability characterized by problems identifying speech sounds and processing how they relate to letters and words. The most obvious symptom of dyslexia is trouble learning to read and spell. Often mistaken for a lack of intelligence, dyslexia affects between five and 10 percent of the general population and is one of the most common language-based learning disabilities.
Recognizing the need for therapists to help those affected by dyslexia, Mississippi College launched the first master’s of education in dyslexia therapy training program in Mississippi. Geared primarily toward teachers, the program trains therapists who help dyslexics succeed in school and in life.
“I became interested in dyslexia through friends whose children were diagnosed with the disability,” says Don Locke, dean of the MC School of Education. “They turned to me as an educator since they were having trouble in school, and I became aware of the very limited resources available to help them.”
Founded in 2004, the MC program remained the only master’s of dyslexia therapy training program in the state for several years. The state of Mississippi followed MC’s lead by establishing the United States’ first teaching license endorsement in dyslexia therapy. The MC program was the first in Mississippi to be accredited by both the Academic Language Therapy Association and the International Dyslexia Association.
“In- and out-of-state specialists consider the MC program the gold standard by which all Mississippi dyslexia
programs are measured,” says Locke. “Through our program, dyslexic children in Mississippi have the opportunity to be helped by the best-trained therapists in the United States.”
The curriculum was designed to include a strong clinical component that would allow therapists-in-training to work with dyslexic clients through the public school system. Two years after the master’s program launched, MC received a grant from the Phil Hardin Foundation that allowed the university to establish its own dyslexia evaluation and therapy center.
Housed in a cozy, renovated residence on the MC campus, the MC Dyslexia Education and Evaluation Center provides comprehensive testing that identifies dyslexia, as well as one-on-one therapy for dyslexic clients. Since opening, the center has performed more than 260 evaluations.
At any given time, the center typically has 25 to 30 clients enrolled for therapy.
"Learning to read with dyslexia is almost like learning Braille. We have to retrain their brains to process language correctly."
Jan Hankins, Director, Mississippi College Dyslexia Center
Jan Hankins ’75, ’77, ’79, ’13, director of the MC Dyslexia Education and Evaluation Center, was an elementary and middle school teacher for 36 years before graduating from the MC dyslexia program in 2013 and making the move to her current position. Hankins has seen first-hand the tragic effects of dyslexia on children.
“People write dyslexic children off. These children can be so smart, but their self-esteem and sense of self-worth is very low,” Hankins says. “Even as young as kindergarten, children look at their peers and ask, ‘Why am I having to work so much harder?’ They don’t feel as smart as the other children or they think there’s something wrong with them. They’re ashamed of something they can’t help. They act out. They shut down.
“Then they come here,” Hankins continues. “They learn to think outside the box and find new skills that make things work for them. After a few days, they’re so excited and so relieved. That’s when they say, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I just learn a different way.’”
Clients come to the center through referrals from doctors, teachers, the Mississippi Department of Education, and desperate parents who Google “dyslexia therapy” online. Clients have come from all over Mississippi and as far away as Texas for testing to confirm suspected dyslexia. Once dyslexia is confirmed, the center provides a detailed report the family can take back to the school system, along with a recommended program of therapy. Not every school is equipped to provide that therapy; the lack of therapists was one of the catalysts behind the establishment of the MC program.
“Parents have to be committed to finding a good therapist and getting that child to therapy several days a week,” Hankins says. “Sometimes that means driving a considerable distance to get to the closest trained therapist.”
While the average age of clients is between nine and eleven, the MC center screens children as young as kindergarteners. Hankins stresses that while age five is the earliest age MC accepts for testing, it is never too late to begin.
“Learning to read with dyslexia is almost like learning Braille,” Hankins says. “We have to retrain their brains to process language correctly. Time is the dyslexic student’s best gift. But according to state law, children must learn to read by third grade. Unfortunately, you can’t put a time limit on dyslexia.”
Therapy includes direct instruction with alphabet, review of letters, review of sounds, reading, cursive handwriting, spelling, verbal expression, and listening. Clients typically work with a therapist at the center for one hour a day, three to five days a week. Therapy typically requires two and a half years of steady, hard work.
Dr. Twila Rawson is a developmental psychologist who has spent the past 30 years with the child development clinic in the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s department of pediatrics. Dr. Rawson evaluates children referred to the clinic for a variety of disorders, including development delay and intellectual and learning disabilities. She enrolled in the MC dyslexia program and is fulfilling her clinical requirements by providing therapy for children in the dyslexia center.
“I was seeing a fairly large number of children with reading difficulty through my work at UMMC, and wanted to find some way to help with those difficulties after I diagnosed them,” Dr. Rawson says. “The training program at MC has enhanced my skills as a clinician in my present position and as a reading therapist. I hope to move into more of a therapist role in retirement in the future.”
Perhaps the best testimonial for the MC dyslexia program comes from the families whose lives it has changed. Cliff ’89 and Leigh ’90 Johnson’s son, James, is a former client.
“Following a trying and confusing period of not understanding why our otherwise bright son could not pass spelling tests, we learned in James’s third-grade year that he is dyslexic,” Cliff Johnson says. “Through his work at the MC dyslexia center, James developed the tools that helped him become a successful student. While he continues to be a poor speller and a relatively slow reader, he uses technology and study strategies that enable him to overcome these challenges. The center can’t ‘cure’ dyslexia, but it does provide students with knowledge and skills that enable them to gain confidence in their ability to take on any challenge.”
By the time he graduated from high school, James was not only comfortable talking about his dyslexia with teachers and other students, he was also a member of the National Honor Society and had scored a 30 on the ACT, including a 34 on the reading section. Today, James is a junior at Appalachian State University majoring in mathematics.
As a tangible expression of their gratitude for the assistance their son received at MC, Cliff and Leigh Johnson established a scholarship that provides financial assistance for other dyslexic children who need the same therapy from the center that benefitted their son.
“We realized that many dyslexic students simply cannot afford the cost of assessment and therapy,” Cliff Johnson says.
“The notion that there are bright children out there who don’t reach their full potential due to economic limitations is heartbreaking. We wanted to do what we could to help those students get the help they need, and a wonderful place to get that help is Mississippi College.”