WASHINGTON — Ameer Baraka of New Orleans spent his youth avoiding school and committing crimes. It wasn’t until he was 23 and in prison for the second time that he learned he’s dyslexic.
“I thought I was a dummy,’’ Baraka, 46, now an actor, author and producer, told a Senate committee. “I knew school wasn’t the place for me …The streets became my classroom.’’
Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy helped organize Tuesday’s hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee to make the case that dyslexia, a common learning disability that makes it difficult to acquire reading skills, deserves more public attention and research money. Cassidy’s daughter, Kate, is dyslexic.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., a former social worker and fellow HELP committee member, is working with Cassidy on the issue.
“If there is a call to action in this hearing, it’s that science should begin driving policy,’’ said Cassidy, former co-chairman of the House Congressional Dyslexia Caucus. “We have the dots. Now let’s connect them.’’
Sally Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity and author of “Overcoming Dyslexia,” told the HELP committee that early dyslexia screening of children should be mandatory.
“Too many children are being missed and that’s really a tragedy,’’ she said “The important thing is awareness — to be aware that it’s already there and we should take action.”
Emily Daly, 19, of Lafayette, said her parents, who are dyslexic, watched her for signs of the condition when she was a child. But it wasn’t until second grade that school officials diagnosed her.
Daily, who didn’t testify at Tuesday’s hearing, recently received a National Achievement Award from Learning Ally, a nonprofit organization that helps provide services for students with disabilities. The award honors students for their academic and leadership accomplishments.
As a student at Ascension Episcopal School, Daly said she also spoke openly about her condition.
“Everybody else was really really quiet about it,” she recalled during a phone interview. “They thought of it as shameful, almost. And it really shouldn’t be that way.”
Daly, double-majoring in neuroscience and art history as a freshman at the University of Notre Dame, said it’s important to educate not only teachers about dyslexia, but friends and others.
I still find it amusing when my friends turn to me and ask me how to spell something. ‘I’m like, ‘Hmm, you’re asking the dyslexic girl? It’s not going to be good,’’’ she said with a laugh.
Cassidy and Mikulski plan to re-introduce a resolution designating October as National Dyslexia Awareness Month. Last fall, Cassidy held two hearings on dyslexia in Louisiana.
Lawmakers said they were encouraged when President Obama signed into law earlier this year a measure by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, to fund research for dyslexia.
Mikulski said at Tuesday’s hearing that children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities “have very unique needs.”
“We need to make sure that they are engaged, challenged and encouraged,” she said.
araka, who has served time in prison for manslaughter and selling drugs, said teachers didn’t intervene when he struggled with reading in New Orleans public schools.
“I was just sort of passed on from grade to grade to grade,” said Baraka, who wrote “The Life I Chose: The Streets Lied To Me.”
He said many of the men he was imprisoned with also couldn’t read in part because they were dyslexic.
“This is an enormous problem and it definitely needs to be addressed,” he said.
Daly plans to continue raising awareness about dyslexia and even start a program at Notre Dame where volunteers work as readers.