Good News for a Wonderful Family

By Dr. Sally Shaywitz

We want to share some exciting news with you who care about dyslexia. This involves 2 dyslexic siblings, whom we have gotten to know and admire over time.

The good news — in early 2018 I received a letter with exciting news from a family I had gotten to know well: “I am writing because I found out that my ancestors on my mother’s side were of Sephardic Jewish ancestry.” History tells us that during the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, Jews living in Spain had to convert to Catholicism, leave the country, or be killed.

In October 2015 the Spanish government made a decision to offer citizenship to those who can prove their Jewish heritage. As the wonderful mom explained to me: “This is important to us to reclaim our Jewish roots, experience justice and establish ties to the place that our ancestors used to call home.” Not surprisingly, the process to obtain citizenship had a number of steps. So where does the fact that the two siblings are dyslexic come into the picture?

One of the requirements for citizenship is to pass two exams — yes, in Spanish! One, a civics exam called the CCSE, and the other an intermediate language exam, the DELE-A2. Both exams are written in Spanish and one even has a spoken language component. You can appreciate the worry of the siblings — the children had significant difficulties learning to read English and were not able to speak any other language, including Spanish. Mom told me, “Without knowledge of the Spanish language, they will not be able to pass these exams.” Their only hope was to apply for a waiver of the test requirement for their citizenship based upon a letter from a doctor.

I was pleased to write a letter in support of these two dyslexic siblings. Their history was strongly positive for dyslexia, having been diagnosed with the condition early in each of their schoolings. Each had an IEP, receiving special education services and accommodations throughout their school careers, and they eventually attended a specialized school for dyslexia for their high school years.

I also want the reader to know and to understand dyslexia and why dyslexia interfered with learning a second language. Science has progressed so that we now understand that dyslexia emanates from a basic difficulty in accessing the spoken language system within the brain. Speaking is natural and has been with humans for tens of thousands of years. In contrast, reading is artificial, it is acquired and has only been with us for several thousand years. It is not natural and must be taught. For 80% of people this proceeds smoothly; however, for the 20% who are dyslexic, the process of learning to read is extremely difficult, resulting in even the brightest of people struggling to decipher the printed word. Converging data from all over the world indicates that in dyslexia the core problem is accessing the spoken language system — in order to read, one must be able to link the printed letter on the page to its sound within the spoken language system. This requires the individual to be able to separate the sounds within a word, go into his or her spoken language system and then access and retrieve each component of the spoken word and then link each sound to its associated letter. For a dyslexic, this is extremely hard and most often results in lifelong reading problems. This difficulty occurs in the dyslexic individual’s primary spoken language system, making reading elusive. This difficulty accessing sounds within the reader’s primary spoken language system is significantly increased in the case of trying to learn and read a second language so that the dyslexic is unable to read a foreign language. This problem is well known; as a result, for example, many schools and universities such as Yale provide, following a rigorous process, a partial waiver of the foreign language requirement for dyslexic students. The letter on behalf of the family was certified and sent along with other needed elements of the application.

And just recently on March 15th, virtually a year since the application was sent, I received the following email:

“RE: Spanish citizenship

“I just want to let you know that the Spanish Ministry of Justice approved the waivers for [each child] because of your letters. Thank you again for all of your help!”

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