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An Overlooked Genius: How to Empower Students with Disabilities

March 16th, 2017

Victor Villaseñor is a bestselling author of numerous novels and memoirs, including Rain of Gold; Burro Genius: A Memoir; Wild Steps of Heaven; Thirteen Senses: A Memoir; and Macho! Some of his books have been nominated for awards, and at least one is scheduled to be made into a television mini-series.  

Today, Victor lives on a large ranch in Oceanside, California, where a local magazine recently referred to him as “not only one of Oceanside’s finest residents-he’s one of the nation’s finest authors.” Furthermore, some of Victor’s books are “required reading” in schools throughout the U.S. Without a doubt Victor embodies the definition of “successful.” However, most people would be surprised to learn that he didn’t learn to read until he was 20 years old.  

A Fortuitous Meeting and a Powerful Story

Two months ago, while my grandsons and I were at my favorite “sunset-watching” spot on the Oceanside Strand—a mile-long stretch of beach in southern California—we met Victor for the first time. I was very excited, because when I was a high-school teacher, I used one of his books, Rain of Gold, in my curriculum.

However, when Victor told me that he didn’t learn to read until age 20, my mouth fell open. When I could finally speak, I asked, “How could that happen?” Victor not only answered this question, but permitted me to videotape his story on my cellphone so that I could share it with teachers during my professional development workshops and conference presentations throughout the U.S. Here’s what he said:

My name is Victor Villaseñor. I’ve written five national bestsellers, and what makes my writing so unusual is that I didn’t learn to read until I was 20. I’m dyslexic off-the-charts: audio and visual. So when I started writing, I didn’t know anything. I started writing when I was 20, right after I learned to read a little bit. I was always kept in mentally slow classes, slapped, beaten, embarrassed, and I found out that writing healed. 

Protecting Students With Disabilities

Hearing Victor’s story of being abused and underserved by educators was heartbreaking for me. However, I’m grateful that today, there are laws to protect students with disabilities from the types of abuse that he suffered.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was enacted in 1975 under a different name: mandates the provision of a “free and appropriate public school education for eligible students ages 3-21. Eligible students are those identified by a team of professionals as having a disability that adversely affects academic performance and as being in need of special education and related services.”

There are currently more than six million individuals ages 3 to 21 who have one or more disabilities. This group accounts for approximately 13 percent of the students enrolled in U.S. public schools. In order to better help educators serve this extremely vulnerable population, the following sections of this post include a list of:

  • Main Categories of Disabilities
  • Race or Ethnicity
  • Facts About Dyslexia
  • Resources and Recommended Readings (for educators and parents)

Main Categories of Disabilities

There are many types or categories of disabilities that require students to receive special services under the IDEA. However, the three most common categories that students requiring these services are more likely to fit into are: Specific Learning Disability, Speech or Language Impairment, or Other Health Impairment.

Approximately 35 percent of the students receiving services have a Specific Learning Disability, and 21 percent have a Speech or Language Impairment. Conversely, only two percent of the students have Multiple Disabilities, one percent have a Hearing Impairment, and one percent has an Orthopedic Impairment. The following list (A List of Disability Types for Students Served Under IDEA During the 2013-14 School Year) is more extensive:

  • Autism
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Developmental delay
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Hearing impairment
  • Intellectual disability
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment
  • Preschool disabled
  • Specific learning disabilities
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment

Race,  Ethnicity, and Disabilities

In terms of race or ethnicity, American-Indian/Alaska-Native students and African-Americans are more likely than other students to require special services at school. Asian-American students are less likely than all groups to require these services. “However, the percentage of students with disabilities receiving services under IDEA for autism was higher among Asian students (19 percent) than among students overall (8 percent).”

Facts About Dyslexia

Although many K-12 students struggle in learning to read, the specific type of learning disability known as dyslexia, which affected best-selling author Victor Villaseñor, is a unique learning disorder. According to Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a neuroscientist and researcher at Yale University who examined the brains of dyslexic individuals: “One in five people will have dyslexia. This percentage is virtually the highest among all neuro-cognitive disorders. Dyslexia is the most common learning disability.”

Dr. Shaywitz defines dyslexia as “an unexpected difficulty in learning to read. Dyslexia takes away an individual’s ability to read quickly and automatically, and to retrieve spoken words easily, but it does not dampen their creativity and ingenuity.”

This means that unlike “ordinary” struggling readers, dyslexics tend to have higher than average IQs and may excel in other academic areas besides reading.

Signs of dyslexia that Dr. Shaywitz identified include:

  • Poor spelling
  • Word substitution
  • Over-relying on context clues
  • Slow or choppy oral reading
  • Avoidance of oral reading
  • Poor handwriting
  • Difficulty completing homework

Dr. Shaywitz recommends certain strategies that teachers can use to help dyslexics such as:

  1. Providing systematic and direct instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, reading sight words, vocabulary concepts, and reading comprehension strategies.
  2. Providing lots of opportunities for students to apply the above skills to reading and writing tasks.
  3. Providing fluency training.
  4. Offering enriched language experiences: listening to, talking about, and telling stories.

In the following days, we’ll feature an article explaining how educators can use “scheduling” to help students with disabilities, as well as a personal essay from one of our own Illuminators, a parent who has sons with learning disabilities as well as her own obstacles growing up.

Recommended Readings



Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.  We offer professional learning workshops and consultation as well.

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