F is for fail

“A child has to try and fail to read for several years before being diagnosed.” ~Harvard Graduate School of Education, June 2016


It’s part of life. Some even say some failure is good for us. Well, if it’s good for us, then dyslexics are the luckiest people on earth. We get our fair share.

Kids who are born with learning disabilities like dyslexia are set up to fail the minute they enter school.

Why? As Canadian lawyer and disability advocate David Lepofsky explains, the education system is designed for children without disabilities:

“The problem is that our school system has been designed for decades on a false and unfair premise. Back in the ’70s and afterwards, it was based on the idea that there are two kinds of students: normal students (they don’t use that word anymore, but they did for years) and then exceptional students.

Normal students are the ones for which schools are built, teachers are trained, curriculum are designed, gym equipment is bought, and so on. Everybody else is an exceptional student.

If you can’t benefit from the system of education that wasn’t designed for you, if you have a disability so that you can’t get in the school or can’t read the books or don’t learn the way others do, then you’re considered an exception and then you get what’s called special education.” (Source:  David Lepofsky: Special Education Update, The Agenda, TVO, March 23, 2016)

Our schools have a legal duty to provide special education support or services to children identified with an “exceptionality” in Ontario.

And yet, there is little to no support for children with dyslexia–one of the most common “exceptionalities.”

Even our “special education” system excludes us. Dyslexia was actually been removed from the 2017 Special Education in Ontario Kindergarten to Grade 12 (Draft Policy and Resource Guide, 2017).

Renu Mandhane, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, wrote a 2018 op-ed about our antiquated education act and how it adversely affects children with learning disabilities:

“Unfortunately, Ontario’s current approach to “special education” is premised on exclusion. It labels students with disabilities as “exceptions” before meeting their needs. Ironically, the “exceptional” label excludes many common mental health, intellectual and learning disabilities altogether, making it even harder for students to get help. Families find the process for identifying and supporting students with disabilities bureaucratic, confusing, alienating, unnecessarily adversarial and exhausting.”

What does this mean for a dyslexic child in the current school system?

If you are that child, no matter how smart, creative and hardworking, you’ll start failing the minute you enter your first classroom.

You’ll fail to read, fail to spell, fail to do basic math. This may not show up on your report card in the early grades, but you’ll eventually hit a wall.


You’ll most likely be identified with dyslexia in grade 3. Sometimes later, sometimes never.

That means you’ll have experienced the shame of failure every day in school for several years or more. It also means you’ll have to play “catch-up” and go to tutoring after school for many years.

If you don’t get the right kind of help, or any help at all, your ability to finish school, pursue a higher education or find a job will be limited, it may also cause anxiety and other mental health issues.

It’s no wonder that youth with learning disabilities are less likely to be in school or employed.

It’s no wonder that people with learning disabilities are more likely to attempt suicide.

It’s no wonder that people in prison are more likely to be dyslexic.

Failure model

This life-altering experience (let’s call it what it is–discrimination) has been given a name. It’s called the “failure model” or “waiting to fail.”

As defined by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the failure model means that “a child has to try and fail to read for several years before being diagnosed.”

Since we know early intervention works well for children with dyslexia, it’s considered a paradox that we wait for them to fail before we help them.

“Research has shown that reading interventions are most successful in kindergarten and first grade. By the time they reach third grade and are old enough for a diagnosis,” says researcher Nadine Gaab of the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “many children may be far behind their peers — and too discouraged to fully catch up.”

Parents are now in the position of teaching the education system about the wait to fail model. I highly recommend this PBS video about the experience of US families (April 30, 2019).

Quotable quote

“Dyslexia is by far the most common reading disability, affecting between five and 10 percent of the population. But its diagnosis currently follows a ‘failure model’: A child has to try and fail to read for several years before being diagnosed. Most children in the United States do not get diagnosed with dyslexia until the end of second grade or, more likely, the beginning of third.” ~Harvard Graduate School of Education, June 2016

Watch the video



Want more?

  • The Education Act requires school boards to provide in accordance with the regulations special education programs and special education services for its exceptional pupils. Specific procedures for the identification and placement of exceptional pupils are set out in Regulation 181/98.

Special Education in Ontario Kindergarten to Grade 12 (Draft Policy and Resource Guide, 2017) (Dyslexia is described but not named in the learning disability category under “Categories of Exceptionalities”, page A 15) 

Policy on accessible education for students with disabilities (Ontario Human Rights Commission, March 2018)

The opportunity to succeed: Achieving barrier-free education for students with disabilities (Ontario Human Rights Commission)

Development of new accessibility standards for education (Letter to Minister of Education from the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Nov. 17, 2017)

Tackling the ‘dyslexia paradox’: reading brain and behavior for early markers of developmental dyslexia (First published:

Fixing the failure model (Harvard Graduate School of Education, June 2016)

Predicting Dyslexia — Even Before Children Learn to Read (

It’s a Myth That Young Children Cannot Be Screened for Dyslexia (International Dyslexia Association website, Feb. 2017)

Effective Reading Instruction (Ontario Branch of the International Dyslexia Association)

Creating a dyslexia-friendly environment (Yale Centre for Dyslexia and Creativity)

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