Special Education

In Move Hailed by Advocates, Iowa Defines Dyslexia in Change to State Law

By Christina A. Samuels — April 14, 2014 2 min read
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Dyslexia has been officially defined in state code by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a move that disability advocates hope will aid in efforts to improve student literacy.

The bill says that dyslexia is a “specific and significant impairment in the development of reading, including but not limited to phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, that is not solely accounted for by intellectual disability, sensory disability or impairment, or lack of appropriate instruction.” The definition itself is standard for the reading disorder, but placing the definition on the books marks a change for Iowa, which has previously used a “non-categorical” method of defining disabilities, as opposed to placing students into one of the 13 disability categories listed in the Individuals with Disabilites Education Act

The bill passed the Iowa House 93-1 in March and the state Senate 48-0 on April 2. It was signed into law April 9.

“Getting this done in a year’s time in both chambers and a governor’s signature, as legislation goes, is remarkable,” Sen. Brian Schoenjahn , D-Arlington, told the Associated Press. He led the bill in the Senate. “I already feel that there was a great deal of support out there, a great deal of concern, and it was addressed.” The issue was brought to lawmakers by the organization Decoding Dyslexia Iowa, a parent organization created to support of students with the disability.

Schoenjahn said in the article that without an official definition, identification and treatment of the condition was nearly impossible. And Rep. Linda Miller, R-Bettendorf, who managed the bill in the House, said the significance goes beyond the definition. “It’s more than just putting a definition in the code,” she said. “I think it’s recognizing that this is one reason why children can’t read at grade level.”

Iowa’s move is an interesting counterpoint to changes that were made just last year to the fifth revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, also known as the DSM-5. The American Psychiatric Association chose to fold dyslexia, dyscalculia, and other learning disabilities into one broad category, “specific learning disability.” However, while the manual offers a common language for clinicians, public schools are guided by the IDEA and its own definitions.

The law also charges Iowa’s Department of Education, the Iowa Reading Research Center, and Area Education Agencies with the task of developing and providing school districts with professional-development services for teachers in an effort to better equip them with skills and strategies to improve student literacy and screen for problems, according to the Associated Press. This provision is subject to the approval of an appropriation from the state.

Schoenjahn told a reporter that $8 million for professional development in early literacy has been included in the Senate’s education budget bill, along with a $1 million appropriation for the agencies to deliver reading instruction. He said lawmakers in both chambers have agreed upon this portion of the education budget, but it hasn’t yet been officially approved. The legislative session is set to conclude April 22.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.