ASHE COUNTY — Learning to read is a core stepping stone for all children.
Irlen Screener Bonnie Derr is looking to help with the growing need to provide extra help to those facing challenges reading the written word.
“I can make a difference in test scores and a child’s life, because if you have learning disabilities, you just want to hide,” Derr said. “Your confidence is low or you’re the class clown. You can make a difference, not only in their grades, but in their whole attitude and day-to-day existence. And, you can do that within an hour-and-a-half.”
Derr plans to make this difference through screening for Irlen Syndrome, a perceptual processing difficulty. The syndrome hinders the ability to make sense of information taken in through the eyes, however it is different from problems involving sight or vision, according to the Irlen Syndrome Foundation.
The foundation seeks to increase proper identification of Irlen Syndrome and access to Irlen solutions, such as colored overlays and spectral filters. The foundation offers access to Irlen certification and training programs, irlen materials and ways to better support students in educational settings.
Just beginning her screenings in Ashe County, Derr said she was inspired, because she had a learning disability as a child, and her son has been helped by Irlen Screening as well.
“My son is 43,” Derr said. “Two years ago he told me, ‘Oh yeah, the letters jump off the page.’ I never knew that. Sometimes kids won’t tell you. If they look on their book and then (another’s) book, and it’s doing the same thing, they think it’s normal.”
Letters jumping off the page is just one of many ways words can appear to children. Others include scrambling, changes in size, swirling of sentences and more. These cause headaches, migraines, eye strain, fatigue and more due to the focusing, depth perception and light sensitivity issues.
Retired school psychologist Susan Youngman said she used the screenings for students as part of her job in Forsyth County.
“Not all psychologists are trained to do this,” Youngman said. “Since I had the education, I used it.”
Youngman received the education when she was initially trained as a screener in 1988, when she flew out to California to train with Helen Irlen, founder of the Irlen Institute. Now, Youngman works to train others.
“In North Carolina, we do screener training one to four times a year, with anywhere from eight to 15 people attending since 1988,” Youngman said. “We literally have trained hundreds of screeners in North Carolina.”
Throughout her career, Youngman saw the positive impact colored overlays can have.
“If you’re not working so hard to see the word, you understand more what they’re saying,” Youngman said.
Derr has found that parents can also benefit from the process, even if they consider themselves above the age for tutoring.
“I’ll help whoever needs help,” Derr said. “It’s genetic. If you had a child that was in second grade struggling, there’s some questions that you ask that the child won’t really be aware of, like, ‘Do you squint when you read?’”
Derr said the parent will know if the child does, and there are some tasks the children are asked to complete.
“Often times the parents will say, ‘Oh, I’m having trouble with that,’” Derr said. “They’ll end up having colored overlays as well.”
As of now, Derr said there is no explanation why some colored overlays work for some people, and other colors work for other people. However, the mysterious solution is an easy one.
Derr said she has found a home in Ashe County, adding that the people in the area have embraced her. She hopes to continue her mission of screening children and adults in the county to provide an easier learning and reading experience.
“My intention is not to make money,” Derr said. “My intention is to simply provide a service. It’s my passion. It’s the thrill of success. You’ve made a difference. What could be better than that?”