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Parents Don't Care - Or Do They?

by Joan T. Esposito

"Parents don't care!" This is a comment I hear over and over again, usually from adults who were fortunate enough to be born with the gift of being able to learn how to read and write while attending grade school. Often the comment comes from adults who have high school diplomas and adults who are often gainfully employed in our public school or justice systems. People judge people by their own standards. This article is being written to provide insight into why some (not all) parents might not seem to care or be involved with their children's educational needs.

Learning Disabilities are hereditary! The majority of the six thousand parents of learning disabled children I have assisted over the last seven years have learning disabilities themselves. Many of them have also failed in school because of their undiagnosed learning disabilities. At least eighty percent of children and adults diagnosed with learning disabilities have their most severe difficulties in learning how to read. Parents who have failed in school. because of their learning disabilities are often intimidated and embarrassed to attend school meetings or court hearings with their children. Over the years I have attended many court hearings and school meetings with fathers who have undiagnosed learning disabilities who have never attended a school meeting out of fear of being found out. I have observed adult men turning pale when they entered their child's school, as they remember their own painful school memories. I am not trying to use learning disabilities as an excuse for these parents, but it is most assuredly an issue that judges may want to take into consideration and be sensitive to in their courtrooms as they deal with juvenile delinquents or when school personnel are working with a family with learning disabled children.

Because learning disabilities are hereditary, many people with a learning disability come from a family cycle of poverty. I have helped many families where the grandparent, the adult child and the grandchild are illiterate because of their undiagnosed and unremediated reading disability. It is not uncommon for me to find that all three generations of these families have attended the same local public school system. Sadly, this is often the kind of family who are told, "Parents don't care!"

To give you some added insight on adults who are afraid of being found out and afraid of the stigma I will share with you my personal story. Although my experiences are not as typical as some stories of juvenile delinquents with whom I have attended court, they are not unlike the experiences of parents whom I aid. As a result of my being afflicted with dyslexia, I was functionally illiterate until my reading disability was diagnosed when I was forty four-years old. My learning disabilities were not identified until after my son was diagnosed with Dyslexia and Attention Deficit Disorder, when he was seventeen years old.

My son's first school years were spent in Beverly Hills, California. My son's father was a literary agent whose clients were directors, producers and writers in the movie industry. After several years of struggling to entertain clients in our home, (I could not read a cook book), I jumped at the chance of our family's leaving Beverly Hills and moving to Santa Barbara. I was so excited because we had no clients or friends in Santa Barbara and I could hide from the world. We bought an old Spanish home which had 10,000 square feet. For the first six months I was extremely happy. I spent all my time doing the things I loved to do: gardening, remodeling and decorating our home. Then one day my son's teacher asked me to help in his 2nd grade classroom. I thought I was going to work with the children on their art projects or just watch over them for the teacher. But the teacher asked me to help the children with their spelling and reading. I was so embarrassed I made an excuse to leave the classroom by saying I was going to the rest room and I never went back. When the school year was over, I removed my son from that school and placed him in a private school so I would never have to face his teacher again. I was never able to participate in any of my son's school activities like I wanted to. Like many of the parents I have assisted over the years, the stigma of not being able to read and write and not knowing why is humiliating and painful.

After I divorced my son's father, I was forced to attend my son's school meetings alone. After a few meetings of not understanding what my son's English teacher was trying to explain to me about his problems with the English language, I broke down and cried in front of her. I told her I could not help him with his spelling because I could not spell or read. The teacher was very kind and seemed to understand. She put her arm around me as she wrote down the name of a book for me to buy at the book store that would help me. I was excited! I thought maybe I could learn how to read from this new book. After all, she was an English teacher. Therefore she must know how I could learn to read. The title of the book she suggested and wrote down for me was The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, a book on grammar. After the meeting I drove with my son to the bookstore. I was excited because just maybe I would finally find a book that would teach me how to read. I looked through the book, but it did not help me learn how to read or write. My expectations of the book to educate me how to read may sound stupid to anyone who can read, but I was willing to try anything. I owned seventeen dictionaries which I had bought throughout my life hoping that I could find one that would work for me. I was not unlike many of my clients who, by the time they find me, have spent a great deal of money buying video and audio tapes from television and radio commercials that promise to teach them and their children how to read only to be disappointed.

For the majority of parents that I help with undiagnosed learning disabilities, I am usually the first adult who understands their fears of being found out. I am now very open about my struggles with the written word. I write about learning disabilities, I give public presentations and I have testified in front of the Legislature about my struggles with the written word. Unfortunately, I have yet to convince one of the fathers I work with to testify in public and admit he can not read because he has dyslexia. For many fathers, the stigma of being adults who can not read because of their undiagnosed learning disabilities is still too embarrassing for them publicly to admit to.. especially in front of their peers or a group of strangers who can read and write.

As long as society does not fully recognize this neurological condition for what it really is and as long as some members of our society keep on referring to learning disabilities or dyslexia as a designer term or boutique disabilities that do not exist, we will continue to have parents and children who will not admit to their reading disabilities and we will continue to hear:

"Parents don't care!"

We do care! Many of us spend far too many years crying in silence with the pain derived from the humiliation of not being able to access the world by way of an education. A person in a wheel chair can access a classroom in a school building by way of a ramp. the only ramp into the classroom for the student who has dyslexia is a teacher trained to teach us with special teaching methods.

In July 1995, a presentation was made to the U.S. Congress by Dr. Reed Lyon from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Dr. Lyon stated that at as many as 20% of our children have learning disabilities. Not all of society's ills can be blamed on learning disabilities, but according to numerous studies on the subject of learning disabilities and juvenile delinquency, this condition is nationally recognized as a significant contributor to crime when undiagnosed and unremediated.

Originally published in The GRAM, the newsletter of LDA-CA, The Learning Disabilities Association of California

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