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Virginia Colleges: Don't Close the Door on Dyslexics

A Call to Advocacy for SB21 and HB509

James Madison photo and Ask that Virginia Colleges Don't Close the Door on Dyslexics

I am a parent of a dyslexic student. When it became clear in first grade that our daughter could not read, we had to pay for private testing to ensure that our daughter accessed dyslexia services in FCPS before she fell so far behind that she could never catch up or was so filled with self-doubt that she was convinced that she would never succeed. Due to the support of amazing FCPS teachers and staff, our daughter is reading close to grade level and excelling in high school. 

Nevertheless, some Virginia colleges would force us to pay for private testing again to demonstrate that she still has dyslexia in order to access learning disability support in college. Not every college…just some. Which means that we would need to navigate a complex analysis of Virginia colleges based on the accessibility to disability services, in addition to excellence and curricula. It could also mean that my family would likely have to pay out of pocket (again!) for expensive testing after waiting six months (or more) to be tested and another couple of months for results, which means my child could be a Sophomore in college before she would get dyslexia support. As a proud James Madison University graduate, I might have to focus our college search elsewhere based on the relatively abysmal rates of disability services at JMU versus Virginia Commonwealth University or Mary Washington.

Obviously, this issue would apply to all learning disabilities, from ADHD to autism. Equally obvious is that some families cannot afford private testing which costs $500-2,500, and typically isn’t paid for by health insurance. This doesn’t even include more rural areas of Virginia where private testing may not be available! Ultimately, this means a lower likelihood of success in college and a greater likelihood that their child would need to drop out of college. 

Fortunately, some thoughtful legislators, Delegate Laura Jane Cohen and Senator Saddam Azlan Salim, have brought forward bills HB509 and SB21, respectively, in the General Assembly to ensure that students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 Plans (504s) are treated equally by all Virginia colleges. As the Autism Society states:

This legislation ensures that students with disabilities will thrive in college. It would streamline the process of qualifying for disability services and require state-supported universities and colleges to accept various forms of documentation of a disability, including an Individualized Education Program (IEP), 504 Plan, notice from a doctor, or evaluation by a psychologist. Currently, many schools require a new evaluation by a psychologist.  This is important as significant barriers exist for students with disabilities when they enter college, and they need to obtain a new psychoeducational evaluation to receive accommodations in college courses.

Unfortunately, some legislators lack the understanding of what IEPs and 504s mean to our students and families. Some also feel it necessary to degrade students by referring to “emotional support donkeys,” like Delegate Garett and Zehr did last week, thereby suggesting a likelihood of fraud and abuse (without any evidence) by students with 504s and IEPs. I’m impressed by Delegate Cohen who responded to this repulsive comment with, “the specious argument of a support donkey is not particularly compelling in this case,” in other words, the scenario described by delegates Garett and Zehr is so ridiculous as to be false. Her grace in this situation demonstrates why I might not have the temperament to serve in the General Assembly, because I would have made a less "appropriate" comment about donkeys.

Remind these legislators that about 94% of students with specific learning disabilities receive accommodations in high school, yet only 17% receive some kind of accommodation in college. Additionally, it is a struggle for many students to find information about the college accommodations process for disabilities, while significant numbers of students cannot afford to pay for an updated diagnosis.

If a student had diabetes, no college would force them to take an expensive test to prove that they still needed their insulin, so why should an autistic or dyslexic student be treated any differently. Chronic health conditions require a lifetime of care and support. Every Virginia college should offer the same level of access to disability services for students with IEPs and 504s.

By the time my daughter graduates from high school, she will have had her IEP for close to a  decade. I believe that her IEP shouldn’t end at a Virginia university door.

Please fight for Virginia student’s access to equitable disability services at Virginia universities by writing to your delegate and senator:


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