For literate adults, it might be hard to remember what the process of learning to read felt like. For kids with dyslexia in Wisconsin though, learning how to read can be maddening. Help might be on the way though as two dyslexia bills circulate in Madison.
As part of our We Live Up Here series, Mackenzie Martin talks to a local reading specialist and a Rhinelander High School student with dyslexia.
Dyslexia is the most common learning disability. Kids that have it have a hard time understanding the way that sounds and letters correspond, which makes reading and spelling difficult. It can be really hard getting help, too, because a lot of schools won’t test for dyslexia or even acknowledge it’s a problem, in part because of how expensive it is to treat it.
In February, the Joint Legislative Council in Madison voted to introduce a bill that would employ a dyslexia specialist at the Department of Public Instruction. The vote on whether to introduce a related bill on developing a dyslexia guidebook was deferred until Wednesday, March 6th.
The process is in the preliminary stages right now, but a lot of people are hoping these bills become laws. People like Donna Hejtmanek in Harshaw. In addition to serving on the Dyslexia Study Committee that the bills were drafted for, she’s also a retired reading specialist and special educator of 41 years.
She says the issue is that kids with dyslexia aren’t taught how to read the right way.
“Over the years, we’ve learned that through science,” she says. “We know the science of reading. We know that the brain changes when it has phonetic instruction. If it’s only getting a sight word method, if only one part of the brain is activated... you need to do both. And if you don’t, you fail those kids. So I know that the kids in Wisconsin are not getting what they need.”
She says it’s really easy for kids with dyslexia to get behind in school.
“Because you don’t read as much as everybody else, your exposure to words is decreased. It’s called the Matthew effect, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” she says. “And just because you’re in special ed doesn’t mean you’ll get the right treatment because teachers are under prepared. They don’t know how to identify it and they don’t know how to treat it.”
One of the kids Donna Hejtmanek tutored for a long time is Kyle Weinfurter. He’s a junior at Rhinelander High School right now, but from an early age, dyslexia really affected his ability in school. He tried special education, but it didn’t work for him. What did work for him was a local charter school and tutoring.
Kyle Weinfurter came to the WXPR studio with his dad, Greg Weinfurter, and they talked about how they dealt with dyslexia together.
GREG: As parents, we had many sleepless nights with our frustrations with how situations were being played out. Kyle, what was the hardest thing you faced?
KYLE: I remember going through history, even in history class it would affect me. I remember you had to read a section for the homework and you have to find the answer in this little section and I'd have to go through it four times or so before I could find the answer... Another hard part about the entire thing is how you were saying that in the special ed department, it was kind of a “one size fits all.” I was kind of being thrown into a place that I didn't feel like I was in the right area in. And a lot of things succumb to bullying also, being in there.
GREG: So you feel you were bullied a lot because you were in special ed?
KYLE: Oh yeah, for sure. I didn’t feel like I belonged in there. I did need something but that’s not what I needed.
GREG: It was definitely hard… but putting you in regular classes was even harder because it was just such a total nosedive.
KYLE: Now after getting the proper tutoring and the help I did need, I found my own way of overcoming most of the dyslexia. So before I wasn't able to read out loud really, I could only read my head and even then it was really slow and I would butcher words and everything would be really bad. My vocabulary wasn't very large. And now, it's a lot easier. Now I wouldn't say I felt different but I feel a lot more normal if that makes any sense.
GREG: My advice from parent to parent is don't give up. There's a lot of alternatives out there, you just have to find them.
KYLE: Get a tutor because that's 100% the only reason why I flipped around, because of Donna. I wouldn’t have gotten that attitude difference. I wouldn't have gotten the help I needed. It’s the only reason why I'm actually feeling confident myself, the only reason why I feel normal.
(This interview has been edited for clarity)
Donna Hejtmanik says hearing Kyle Weinfurter talk about his experience makes her feel hopeful.
“It gives me goosebumps to think that he’s all grown up… and he’s going to be successful. I feel like I can say he’s going to be alright,” she says. “And that’s why I will not give up this battle and this fight. I hope before I die that we can get this legislation to pass.”
If the two bills drafted for the Dyslexia Study Committee pass through the Wisconsin legislature, the hope is that it will make things easier for kids with dyslexia.
Wisconsin is one of a handful of states that have yet to pass this kind of legislation.
You can find more information about the Dyslexia Study Committee and the WI bills drafted for them here: https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/misc/lc/study/2018/1791
You can find more information about dyslexia here:
This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.