Skip to main content


Reading disabilities fly under the radar in public schools

Thousands of students in the Chicago area struggle with reading.

For many of them, a learning disability is the root of the problem.

But within Chicago Public schools, where roughly 20 percent of students are at or above grade-level in reading, learning disabilities, like dyslexia, can easily go undiagnosed unless a parent demands help.

"There are a lot of things that people can do to help their kids for a lot of money, but… what happens when you just don’t have the money? That’s what we’re dealing with all the time," said Elliott Marks, an advocate at the Family Resource Center on Disabilities in Chicago.

Marks works with low-income parents who can’t afford to pay for private therapeutic schools or private tutoring, but need help getting special education services.

By law, public schools must identify and serve students who have learning disabilities, which includes dyslexia, dysgraphia and other reading-related disorders.

But Marks says public districts don’t exactly make it easy for parents to get their child the help they need.

“I joke sometimes that I had to learn all of my son’s medical stuff, and then I had to learn all his all his legal stuff, his legal rights, and then I had to learn about the teaching stuff. So, here, I had to become a teacher, a lawyer and a doctor to serve my own kid and obviously not everybody can stop and just do that,” Marks said.

Advocates and parents say schools make excuses for not providing services required by the federal law that governs special education, known as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, or IDEA.

I spoke with one of Marks’s clients over the phone. Let’s call her Renee, because she asked me not to use her full name for fear her daughter’s school might retaliate. 

Renee’s daughter has dyslexia.

She was diagnosed in 5th grade and when she transferred to CPS for middle school, "it was difficult to get in the line or in the queue," Renne said. "I had to go to an outside source to get a test, another test to show the school that my daughter does need services."

Dyslexia and other reading disabilities are often dealt with in general education classrooms.

Teachers or assistants will give extra intervention to students that are falling behind instead of going through the paper work of providing them an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP.

“I was never told that we have other students that are more serious because that’s a political statement and they can be sued for it," Renee said. But, she added, "there’s other ways of saying the same thing.”

Marks says districts, especially Chicago Public Schools, bank on the fact that many parents will give up on the sometimes tedious process of getting an IEP.

"It’s like they’re in Vegas, it’s like they’re playing the odds," Marks said. "And they’re always playing the odds to figure that most parents won’t cause a big stink."

In CPS, where Renee’s daughter attends school, 12 percent of students have IEPs.

Just over half of them are identified as “learning disabled," which encompasses dyslexia. Data on specific numbers of students with dyslexia is not collected.

A CPS spokeswoman said the district is working to build a framework that supports the specific needs of ALL students, which could reduce the need for students with milder disabilities to have IEPs.

But even kids who don’t have a learning disability, research shows that parents still should be highly involved.

A 2007 study by the Harvard Family Research Project found for low-income families, when parents increased their involvement in school, their child’s ability to read improved.

Nationally, fewer public school students are identified as having a learning disability according to data from the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Researchers attribute the shift to a number of things, including the over-diagnosis of kids before 2000.

Still, Marks said, "lots of kids may need IEPs that aren’t getting them."

And for those kids, a committed parent may be their only hope.

"Some parents will just dedicate their entire lives to their child. And then others can’t get it together to make them lunch or come to their IEP meeting," Marks said.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.