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Teen Advocate

As a student with dyslexia, 13-year-old Ainsley P. once would have balked at the sight of the four-syllable, 11-letter word “legislation.” Now, it’s part of her lexicon.

For the past two years, the Virginia Beach eighth-grader has used her voice and experience to raise awareness about dyslexia by advocating for laws that address the educational needs of students with the learning disability.

“Most people think dyslexia is just mixing up the letters b and d or m and w. They don’t realize how much it affects kids like me. If you can’t read, it’s very difficult to learn in all subjects,” said Ainsley, who has a keen interest in science and the performing arts, and aspires to become an orthodontist.

Diagnosed with dyslexia in second grade, she overcame her reading and writing challenges by working her way through the Wilson Reading System® (WRS) with her tutor, Christine Fagan, a credentialed Wilson® Dyslexia Practitioner. Since then, Ainsley has presented on dyslexia before her local school board, spoken to her state senator about the issue, and attended advocacy events with fellow Decoding Dyslexia–Virginia members.

“Unlike what most people believe, those of us with dyslexia don’t read backward,” she told members of the Virginia Beach City School Board during Dyslexia Awareness Month last October. “We also don’t write backward, and we don’t have low IQs. People with dyslexia are highly intelligent and creative thinkers who can and do excel in the classroom when their dyslexia is identified early and remediated using evidence-based instruction.”

Earlier this year, Ainsley was nominated by her senator to participate in Virginia’s seven-week Senate Page Leadership Program at the capitol in Richmond. For the entire legislative session, she and other senate pages worked full-time hours alongside their elected officials and peers in the concurrent House of Delegates Page Program.

The firsthand civics experience, she said, has piqued her interest in law and public service.

In February, Virginia’s General Assembly approved legislation that requires schools with reading specialists to have at least one specialist trained in identifying and teaching students with dyslexia or related learning disabilities.

The bill, recently signed into law by Governor Terry McAuliffe, expands upon a 2016 bill requiring teachers seeking licensure or licensure renewal to complete training in dyslexia awareness and evidence-based interventions and accommodations. The bill also requires that all teacher preparation programs offered at Virginia’s public colleges and universities convey information on identifying students at risk for learning disabilities, including dyslexia. The new laws take effect on July 1, 2017.

Although students are prohibited from lobbying while they participate in the page program, Ainsley was present for the 2016 vote and plans to remain an engaged advocate on the issue on behalf of peers throughout the state.

“I think it would be great to get more programs like Wilson in the school systems, so students with dyslexia can overcome their challenges,” she said.

Dyslexia awareness has been her platform in regional scholarship pageants as well. She currently holds the title of Miss Cardinal Outstanding Teen, and in June will compete in the Miss Virginia Outstanding Teen pageant, a sister organization to the Miss America pageant. She previously was recognized as Miss Virginia Beach Outstanding Teen.

Ainsley and her parents, Lynn and Brian, attribute her literacy success to WRS and her tutor, Ms. Fagan.

“I began working with Ainsley when she was in second grade,” Christine said. “In the beginning, she struggled not only with the language, but with her self-esteem. Through many years of hard work and self-discovery, Ainsley completed all 12 Steps and has blossomed into a self-confident young teenager, and a reader! I am honored to have taught her to read, but even more honored that she has become so passionate about dyslexia. It has been a blessing to watch her transformation.”

Pictured: Ainsley celebrated with her tutor, Wilson Dyslexia Practitioner Christine Fagan, when she completed the Wilson Reading System in sixth grade.