Dennis Bonnen

How this man’s journey with dyslexia might lead to a victory for thousands

On a late sunny afternoon, long after most lawmakers have quit for the day, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen is seated in his office behind the House chamber, recounting his struggles with — and triumphs over — dyslexia.

This article was originally posted on Fort Worth Star-Telegram by David Montgomery.

As he tells of his personal journey in dealing with the learning disorder, his 13-year-old son, Gregory, drops in for a visit. Gregory, too, has dyslexia, and he listens knowingly as his father describes their shared experiences in confronting an inner adversary that has also been a source of strength.

“I will tell you it can be a struggle at times, it can be a battle,” says the 47-year-old Republican House speaker, with Gregory seated beside him, clad in shorts and a dark sweatshirt. “But in the end, if you take it head on and you work hard, and you get the support you need, it’ll be the greatest attribute in your life.”

On Wednesday, the chamber that Bonnen has led since January will take a major step toward helping thousands of other dyslexics in the state’s public school system. An element in a massive public school finance bill scheduled for debate on the House floor calls for providing millions of dollars in state funding to help school districts detect and treat dyslexia.

School districts are already required to test students for dyslexia and provide treatment, but the state doesn’t fund the requirement. House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, himself a dyslexic, says the new source of funding is essential to enable schools to more thoroughly identify dyslexic students and help them deal with the learning and reading disorder.

According to the Texas Education Agency, 194,214 dyslexic students are enrolled in public schools and charter schools, which would be 3.6 percent of the state’s 5.4 million students. Huberty says the estimate, based on numbers provided by the schools, is a “woefully short” undercount that almost certainly would go up if local educators are given more money to do a better assessment.

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance, which recommended the provision, points to national data showing dyslexia affects 5 to 10 percent of public school students. Huberty and others say the number in Texas could be closer to 15 percent and possibly above, based on a number of national studies.

“I want them to identify these kids,” said Huberty, “and we’re going to give them the funding to do it.”

Huberty is the chief architect of House Bill 3 that provides $9 billion in public school funding and tax relief to carry out what state leaders, including the House speaker, describe as the top priority of the 86th Legislature — retooling the state’s broken school finance system and putting all Texas students on the road to a first-rate education.

Although the passage dealing with dyslexia has generally gotten little attention, those close to the issue say that the state-funding provision is significant and long overdue in helping districts do a better job at treating dyslexic students.

“The problem that we’ve run into for years and years is that dyslexia remediation is an unfunded mandate,” says Sarah Martinez of Fort Worth, who has two dyslexic daughters and is the co-founder of the non-profit Dyslexia Resource Center of Tarrant County. “The State of Texas … tells school districts that you need to identify kids who are dyslexic and you need to give them proper remediation but they don’t provide any additional funds to make that happen.”

The new state dyslexia allotment stemmed from the final report of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance, which served as a blueprint for the school finance bill. The estimated cost of the new state dyslexia funding will be $100 million a year, according to the commission.

Dyslexia is a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters and other symbols. It has no bearing on intelligence and it never goes away, but those who have it, particularly those who undergo treatment, develop coping skills to deal with the disorder.

Those who have struggled with dyslexia include baseball legend Nolan Ryan, actor Tom Cruise, TV celebrity Jay Leno and Virgin Group Founder Richard Branson, who co-founded a charity to help change perceptions about dyslexics.

Huberty, 50, says he didn’t find out he was dyslexic until a college English teacher pulled him aside and asked if he would consent to being tested. After the teacher told him that the test identified the 21-year-old junior as dyslexic, Huberty’s initial response was, “What the hell is that?” Over the ensuing three decades, Huberty refined his coping skills.

“You work around it,” he said. “You just have to work harder, that’s all. It’s hard to describe.”

Bonnen said the discovery that he had dyslexia came after a kindergarten teacher erroneously told his mother that her son “was not quite as smart as the other kids.” Outraged, she took her son to Houston, where tests showed he had dyslexia. When he was in the fourth grade, she drove him from their home in Angleton to a private school for dyslexic students in Houston.

“I’m an example of when students are given the support and the tools that they deserve and they need, they can be successful,” he said. “You learn how to cope, you learn how to manage and work around it. I still invert numbers, I still miss words, I can’t spell much of anything.”

But, he adds, “it also taught me how to overcome challenges. … When you walk up to a brick wall, how to figure out how to get around that brick wall. And not to stop and not to walk away.” When he was asked what he considered his greatest attribute during his first job interview after college, Bonnen said he responded: “Being dyslexic.”

Invited into the discussion by his father, Gregory Bonnen echoed that assessment. He is in the seventh grade, enjoys playing soccer, and, as he starts his teenage years, already has plans to go business school and get a graduate degree in sports management.

“Yeah, that’s me,” he said, after the older Bonnen told how his mother “fought for me every day” after he was diagnosed with dyslexia,

“If you get the help you need,” Gregory said, “it’s really just …”

“No big deal? his father interjected.

“You don’t even notice it,” Gregory concluded.

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