All Eyes on Dyslexia: Senators Spotlight the Intersection of Science, Learning and Dyslexia

In just a few weeks, Jocelyn Hanrath, a soccer goalie with an eye on the Olympics, will graduate from her hometown high school in Salt Lake City with a 3.7 GPA. This fall, she will enroll in college in Washington state to pursue a degree in sports management and complete an internship with the Seattle Reign, a professional women’s soccer team. Earlier this spring, Jocelyn was awarded the 2016 Allegra Ford Thomas Scholarship from the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD).

Today, Jocelyn is a picture of success and her future is limitless. But what is not apparent from this snapshot of Jocelyn’s life is that she also has dyslexia.

In her early elementary years, Jocelyn struggled with reading and became uninterested in school. It wasn’t until fourth grade that Jocelyn was identified as having dyslexia and other learning and attention issues, including dysgraphia (difficulty with writing) and trouble with executive functioning (difficulty with planning and organization) and focus.

Once Jocelyn’s difficulties were identified, they could finally be addressed by her teachers. Due in large part to her mother’s advocacy efforts, Jocelyn received the accommodations she needed, like having extra time for tests and using a computer for written assignments. Jocelyn’s teachers figured out how to teach her in a way that allowed her to be successful. Because of this, Jocelyn was able to keep up with her grade level content and even pursue AP and advanced courses.

Jocelyn is a success story. But far too many students with learning disabilities like dyslexia do not have the same positive experience that Jocelyn has had. For too many students, their challenges are not identified early and their teachers are not prepared to provide supports and accommodations. All too often, little is expected of students with learning and attention issues—they may be not supported and encouraged to pursue their goals and dreams.

In the U.S., one in five children have brain-based learning and attention issues that affect reading, writing, math, organization and focus.

Research confirms that when given the right services and supports, children with learning and attention issues can and do thrive in school and life. Therefore, as a parent-founded and parent-led organization, NCLD’s mission is to improve the lives of the 1 in 5 children with learning and attention issues. We aim to achieve that mission by empowering parents and young adults like Jocelyn through our many resources, transforming schools so they can successfully implement strategies that better serve students, and advocating for equal rights and opportunities in federal policy relating to education, disability, and workforce issues.

Despite their prevalence, learning disabilities like dyslexia do not often take center stage in the national arena or federal policy. Recently, however, several senators decided to change that. Jocelyn and her mother were able to travel to Washington, D.C., to tell their story and advocate for other students who have not had the same opportunities for success as Jocelyn.

In February, a bipartisan group of five senators – Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), formally requested that the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) hold a hearing to shine a spotlight on dyslexia, the nation’s most common learning disability. On May 10, the HELP Committee responded by hosting the hearing Understanding Dyslexia: The Intersection of Scientific Research & Education.

This hearing was personal for many, including Sen. Bennet, who spoke of his own dyslexia, and Sen. Cassidy, whose daughter was identified with dyslexia in elementary school. But the highlight of the event was hearing the firsthand experiences of the witnesses—like David Boies, famed lawyer and 2014 NCLD honoree, Ameer Baraka, noted actor, and Jocelyn’s mother April Hanrath, an Understood Parent Advocate, who testified about the struggles and successes those with dyslexia often experience over their lifetime.

While April Hanrath’s testimony focused on Jocelyn’s journey, it reflected a story familiar to many. Sen. Mikulski called parents like April “night hawks,” studying the internet late into the evening to find resources and support for their child, noting as a resource that empowers parents of kids with learning and attention issues. Since its launch in October 2014, Understood has welcomed more than 14 million visitors who are finding help through personalized resources, interactive tools, daily access to experts and a community of parents. Both April Hanrath and Sen. Mikulski agreed that parents continue to need support and tools to better understand dyslexia and learning disabilities.

Other witnesses included individuals who have dedicated their careers to research relating to the origins of and interventions for dyslexia. Dr. Guinevere Eden, director of the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University and an expert advisor for Understood, highlighted advances in brain imaging that have led to a better understanding of dyslexia. She spoke of the importance of recognizing the early signs, and gave examples of educational strategies to support children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. Dr. Mark Mahone of the Kennedy Krieger Institute emphasized the importance of addressing the whole child and the myriad needs and challenges presented by students with dyslexia and other learning challenges. And Dr. Sally Shaywitz of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity spoke about the importance of implementing evidence-based methods for identifying and supporting students with dyslexia.

This hearing was significant for the learning disabilities community and for those impacted by and living with dyslexia. It brought attention to the prevalence and consequences of issues like dyslexia, and the great need for early identification, prepared and supportive educators, and engaged parents who have high expectations for their children. With these three things in place, more students, like Jocelyn, can be on their way to fulfilling their dreams.

Understood ( is a free, comprehensive resource for parents of children with learning and attention issues. NCLD manages and operates Understood in collaboration with Understood’s other 14 founding partners. Read Understood’s article about the senate hearing, Dyslexia Is Important to the Nation, Senators Say.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities ( is an America Forward Coalition Member and a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of the one in five children and adults nationwide with learning and attention issues—by empowering parents and young adults, transforming schools and advocating for equal rights and opportunities.

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