The first indication Jill Maher got that her daughter Katie was having problems at school was when she was in first class and they got a letter saying that her teacher thought she needed learning support for English and maths.
“They said [they hoped that] by Christmas everything would have panned out.” But it didn’t.
Jill realised that her daughter’s confidence was “rock bottom; probably aware that her peers were doing better than she was”. She couldn’t cope with even the small amount of homework she was getting and this continued through first class.
“By the end of first class I thought something wasn’t right here. I went into the school and they suggested I get her assessed.”
Jill and her husband, Kieron, didn’t hesitate in acting on the advice. “I know she was still very young but it was very frustrating not knowing what was going on.”
They also wanted clarity for Katie’s sake. “She knew there was something wrong but of course she had no idea what dyslexia was. She loved school and she really tried her best, but she wasn’t getting results.”
The psychologist came to their house in Lucan, Co Dublin, to conduct the assessment, which took about two and a half hours. Although Katie lacked confidence at school, she wasn’t lacking confidence at home, says Jill, and was quite happy to chat to the psychologist while her mother stayed upstairs.
Four weeks later the psychologist came back with her report. “They are very complicated and not easy to understand at all. We didn’t have a clue, to be honest,” says Jill. “The main thing for parents is to read the last page: the recommendations.”
She remembers her and Kieron sitting Katie down at the kitchen table to explain the outcome to her. It’s a funny word, “dyslexia”, they told her, but it means you are going to get extra help at school.
“She started crying and ran upstairs. She had something but didn’t really understand [what].”
Jill and Kieron themselves knew very little about this specific learning disability, which affects roughly one in 10 people and makes it difficult for them to learn to read, write and spell – no matter how intelligent they are. At the time they wondered if she would ever be able to do the Junior and Leaving Certificate exams.
Katie got an exemption from Irish straight away and received daily resource teaching for maths and English. Through this and other interventions, such as a tutor coming to their home and a dyslexic workshop through the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, she achieved "fabulous" results in the Drumcondra tests in sixth class, says Jill, and could look forward to starting secondary school.
“It costs money, basically, having a dyslexic child and there is no way around it,” says Jill. “You just have to do without.”
Now Katie is in transition year, having sat her Junior Cert last June. Her results included a B in honours English. She had a reader for the exams and a spelling and grammar waiver.
“They make it known on her results sheet that she had accommodations, which is not good,” says Jill.
Katie "definitely" has to work harder than her peers. "She knows that herself." She may well have to be assessed again before the Leaving Cert and to avail of the Disability Access Route to Education (Dare).
Jill doesn’t understand why people wouldn’t take their child for a psychological assessment if advised to do so although, through her work as a special-needs assistant at a secondary school, she knows such cases. “I know people can be in denial, that there is nothing wrong with their child.” She sees pupils who have never been assessed “and you see how frustrated they are; especially boys. Boys tend to get in a bit of trouble.”
It may be down to money, she says, but, for example, the Dyslexia Association of Ireland will make subsidised assessments available in certain cases.
The association employs four educational psychologists at its head office in Dublin. It performed more than 550 assessments last year – a 15 per cent increase on 2012. Approximately one in five of these is done at subsidised or reduced rates for people who are less well off.
“They would never turn anyone away,” says Jill. “But some people just don’t want their children labelled.”
For more information, contact the Dyslexia Association of Ireland on 01-8776001 or see dyslexia.ie