In an artfully and elusively worded missive, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has issued a formal letter “clarifying” standards for usage of the labels dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia in the IEP process. In a nutshell, the October 23, 2015 “Dear Colleague” letter informs state and local educational authorities that there is nothing in federal law that prohibits the use of these terms in identifying and planning for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA).
This is not exactly a groundbreaking ruling: the law itself specifies that the term “specific learning disabilities” includes dyslexia. ( 20 U.S.C. §1401(30) (B) and 34 CFR §300.8(c)(10)). So there never was any legal basis for suggesting otherwise.
Nonetheless, many school districts have a longstanding tradition of denying dyslexia. Parents are routinely told that their child cannot be tested for dyslexia as part of the IEP process (“there is no test for dyslexia”) and worse, that the school is legally precluded from using the term dyslexia (“dyslexia is a medical diagnosis.”) Parents often believe that without recognition of dyslexia, the school’s IEP process funnels their child into special education classes that fail to meet their specific learning needs. Indeed, statistics show that over time, dyslexic students in special ed classes often do far worse than peers who received no specialized educational support.
Unfortunately, while the new ED letter makes it abundantly clear that incorporating a dyslexia label within an IEP is in no way “prohibited” — it also neither mandates or encourages the use of any specific term. Rather, it comments that “there could be situations” where it would be “helpful to include information about the specific condition (e.g., dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dysgraphia) in documenting how that condition relates to the child’s eligibility determination.”
There also “could be situations where an IEP Team could determine that” there is a need for school personnel responsible to that the child’s educational disability is caused by dyslexia or another specific condition.
In light of this “could be” rationale, the ED letter “encourages ” states to review their policies “to ensure that they do not prohibit the use of the terms dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia in evaluations, eligibility, and IEP documents.”
To the extent that ED statement counters a commonly used rationale often used by school authorities to brush off the concerns expressed by parents, it is a victory for dyslexic schoolchildren. But as the letter neither mandates the recognition of the terms nor the provision of any specific types of services, it may turn out to be a very hollow one.