Dyslexics learn to get support, take charge of their lives

By Pam Adams


PEORIA – By sixth grade, Katelyn Kocher had a standard greeting for every teacher at the beginning of every school year.

“Hi, I’m Katelyn. I’m dyslexic. I have a 504 plan, have you read it and do you have any questions?” she’d ask, referring to the medically-approved plan that lays out how her treatment for dyslexia should be handled in the classroom.

Katelyn, now a Dunlap High School senior and aspiring country music singer, practically sings the phrase. She says she was taking control of her disability and her grades.

“I didn’t like the idea of the teacher being in charge. They weren’t the ones taking the test, they didn’t know what I could see.”

As she grew older, Katelyn realized her mother didn’t always know what techniques worked best either. But it was her mother’s example that taught her to forge through the maze of misunderstandings about what’s thought to be the most common cause of reading, writing and spelling difficulties.

Dyslexia: Why is it important?

Dyslexia, often characterized by difficulty in reading, is thought to be one of the most common learning disabilities. Estimates vary, but some form of dyslexia could affect up to 20 percent of the population. Advances in identification and treatment of the disorder can reduce the potential of dyslexia-associated problems in school, at work, or personal self-esteem.

Help available: Dyslexia Awareness Network offers tutoring and support to families. Info: http://dyslexiawarenessnetwork.org or call 679-0788.

Before Katelyn took charge, her mother, Dawn Kocher of Peoria, always made a point of asking teachers if they had ever had students with dyslexia.

“They’d usually say no,” Dawn Kocher says, “and I’d say yes, you have. One in five people are dyslexic.”

In Dawn Kocher’s telling, every family of dyslexia has a story, even if they don’t know there’s a dyslexic in the family.

Stacy Hardin’s efforts to help her son learn to read led her to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education and become a certified dyslexia tutor. But it took her more than a decade to connect her son’s childhood struggles to her husband’s grownup frustrations.

Richard “Bub” Hardin, of Peoria, is 47. He was diagnosed with dyslexia at 38.

Growing up in what he describes as the dark ages of dyslexia, he was labeled lazy, stupid, the class clown.

“It was heartbreaking because I got to where I believed it for a very long time,” he said.

A former truck driver and part-time police officer, it took him 16 years to earn a college degree. Hardin says he is finally learning to overcome his disability after “a wasted lifetime.” His wife tutors him for the dyslexia and he is currently studying to become a physical therapy assistant.

When Richard Hardin was young, most people, including teachers, knew little, if anything, about dyslexia, he says. If they were familiar with the term, they thought it meant seeing words backwards or reversing letters like ‘b’ and ‘d.’

“If it was that simple,’ says his wife and tutor, “all they’d have to do is hold a book up to a mirror.”

Advocates say too many children still go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, educators still know too little about what dyslexia is and how to treat it. New research, technology and awareness has made a difference for students like Katelyn Kocher and the Hardins’ son, Noah, a junior at Peoria High School. But they say advances also bring new challenges.

Katelyn echoes research that finds dyslexia isn’t a vision problem or a sign of low intelligence. It begins in her brain and the different way it processes written material compared to people who don’t have dyslexia.

Dyslexia can affect each person differently. Each time Katelyn reads, it can be like seeing a word for the first time, which means it takes much longer to recall words as simple as “the” and “and.”

She has to pause and use the strategies she learned in four years of tutoring at the former Children’s Dyslexia Center.

Katelyn was diagnosed between first and second grades after her mother and a teacher noticed her difficulty recognizing sight words. Her other symptoms include trouble writing and processing sounds.

“We got lucky, the dyslexia center opened that summer,” her mother says.

The center closed and quickly reopened under new management in 2015, after funding ran out.

The Kochers were lucky in other ways. They could afford the cost of the medical diagnosis, about $500 at the time. They could also afford to move to the public school district of their choice when the private school Katelyn was attending could no longer offer the resources she needed.

With a medical diagnosis, Katelyn received the ’504′ plan, designated under a section of federal civil rights law designed to assure students with disabilities receive services that remove barriers to learning.

For instance, she could take more time to complete tests, have directions read to her, or graded leniently for spelling errors.

When she took the ACT test last year, her mother faxed 86 pages of documentation to the testing service to prove she was eligible for more time to take the test.

Cellphones, audio books, and other technology turned out to be useful tools. Her iPhone is considered an ‘assistive device’ she can use to take notes or write papers by speaking into the recording setting, then printing it out. She has also used text-to-speech tools and apps.

Katelyn says she went from reading a book in weeks to reading it in hours, writing a paper in six hours to writing it in about 90 minutes.

Her parents had been warned not to allow her to take a foreign language because, as her mother put it, “It’s nearly impossible, they can’t read English.” But Katelyn managed to complete two years of Spanish, along with an academic load so heavy she could have graduated a year early.

“I don’t use half the technology I used to, mostly because as new technology comes along, it makes it easier for me to manage my disability.” She has also learned that depending on the class or a teacher’s style, she doesn’t necessarily need the same accommodations for every class.

Katelyn stays busy with gymnastics, community theater and music, particularly music. She had produced a country music CD and goes to Nashville regularly to perform and be mentored by well-known country music singer Pam Tillis, daughter of another well-known country music star Mel Tillis.

Katelyn’s mother says her music is an outlet from the frustrations of dealing with dyslexia. “I think she learned early on if you don’t have something you enjoy, dyslexia can take over and define you.”

But dyslexia also presents challenges in music. Katelyn is currently auditioning for music schools, which requires her to sing a song after looking at the sheet music for 30 seconds. Aspects of her dyslexia, such as her inability to tune out sounds, are an advantage in music settings.

“Dyslexia will always be a challenge, it’s there in everything I do,” she says. “But I’ve figured out ways to overcome it to the point most people don’t know I have it.”

Though her efforts to start a mentoring club for students with disabilities weren’t successful, her openness about dyslexia has taught her she is not alone.

She remembers the year she introduced herself to her new math teacher at Dunlap High, Scott Nessler. She made her spiel about being dyslexic and having a treatment plan. He told her he understands, he has dyslexia too, though it hasn’t been officially diagnosed.

Katelyn says she was shocked. “It was so relaxing to know I didn’t have to explain my struggles.”

Pam Adams can be reached at 686-3245 or padams@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @padamspam.