Boys' Stater Educates Nation About Dyslexia

To Josh Bailey of Columbia Central High School, words on a page may seem jumbled, or teachers' instructions may be hard to interpret, but his mission is clear.

As Bailey speaks with some of his fellow delegates attending American Legion Boys' State this week at Tennessee Technological University, the 17-year-old wants to teach as many people as possible about dyslexia, the learning disability he and 2.4 million other school-aged Americans live with every day.

"No young person likes to draw attention to themselves in class, so teachers don't always know what to do for a student with a learning disability," explained Bailey, who was diagnosed with dyslexia as a third-grader. "For a student of any age, it's hard to ask teachers to try a different way of teaching so you have a chance to learn."

As he grew older, Bailey decided how he could help teachers and students. An avid member of the Boy Scouts of America, he found himself ready for his Eagle Scout project. The subject was an easy decision. He decided to form a workshop for teachers and administrators explaining the problems dyslexics face and how teachers could help.

The National Institutes of Health estimate that approximately 15% of the U.S. population is affected by learning disabilities. Dyslexia is a learning disability characterized by problems in expressive or receptive, oral or written language. Dyslexia describes a different kind of mind, often gifted and productive, that learns differently.

Bailey began presenting his workshops to local educators in Maury County. He soon expanded to surrounding school systems. Word of his work spread to the Office of Special Education Programs in Washington, D.C., which coordinates efforts of special education directors in every state. Then, he gained a larger, very influential audience.

"I testified before the Senate on behalf of an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act," Bailey said. "About a month later, the bill passed, and I was asked to introduce President Clinton at the signing of the bill."

Bailey doesn't plan to be a stranger to Capitol Hill. He plans to return to Washington to join a National Disability Association panel to discuss how best to encourage and help higher functioning disabled people become more independent.

Bailey admits he still does not like to draw attention to his own learning difficulties in the classroom, but he does encourage teachers to think about some simple accommodations.

"It's hard for a dyslexic to listen to an instructor and take notes," explained Bailey. "So, getting a copy of the teacher's notes and sitting in the front of the classroom to increase concentration are two important accommodations.

"I ask every teacher to be a pragmatist. If you try one method of teaching and it doesn't work, try something else. Don't just give up on a student if they don't learn a certain way."

Bailey plans to try his own advice and become a history teacher. He's sure his experience will help him reach students with various kinds of disabilities.

"As a motivational speaker at a camp for dysfunctional juveniles, I've had people my age say they can relate to my experiences and the frustration of having the same disability. I think I can make a difference if I continue to teach."

Bailey is one of more than 600 delegates at Boys' State. Teachers, administrators, and community leaders nominate high school juniors based on their academic talent and their potential for leadership. During the week, participants are immersed in learning state government by running a mock 51st state. This is the 34th year Tennessee Tech has hosted Boys' State.