By Alice Doyel
Guest blogger


Olivia Handman,
Master of Arts in Policy Studies, Summer 2020
University of Washington Bothell

Part Two of a Four-Part Series on Dyslexia


Olivia Handman’s research on accessibility to special education services in King County came to my attention when she was looking for families to interview for her MA thesis. I asked her for a copy of the thesis when it was completed.

Master of Arts Capstone Project:
Cross-Sectional Study on Accessibility to Special Education Services in the Seattle/King County Region

Olivia’s thesis hit square-on the challenges faced by many families trying to get appropriate and necessary services for their children. Therefore, I invited Olivia to tell us about her research process, findings, and recommendations.

In this interview, Olivia informs us about her thesis, which clearly touches her heart. Olivia has a dyslexia diagnosis, so she understands personally the desires and challenges families face.

In my next blog post, Olivia tells her own story of her experiences, bad and good, acquiring an education in King County schools where dyslexia often is not readily accepted as an educational learning barrier for a bright, capable student.

Process and Limitations

My original design idea was to equally interview families within low, mid, and high-income levels. That did not work out. My assumption is that the pandemic, as well as being time-consuming and other related stress issues, were factors. Another factor was that as a student, I did not know to provide incentives like gift cards, which I would do for further research. Therefore, I do not have conclusions based on income. However, I found considerable information about social capital and knowledge transfer, and how people are challenged when addressing the special education system in King County.

Common Underlying Complaint

Many families do not understand how to get access to the special education system, much less how to get an IEP (Individualized Educational Program) for their child, because accessing and navigating the special education system is so difficult. School districts provide documents that are not understandable. Even parents who are lawyers or teachers or education advocates have difficulty understanding these documents. This is just the beginning of their challenges in pursuing fair and equitable educational opportunities for their children.


  • Many parents lack social capital and specific knowledge to support their children accessing the special education system, consequently causing them considerable stress.
  • Families with social capital and knowledge who had some understanding of the system, e.g., teachers, advocates, education lawyers, or paralegals had an easier time navigating the system.
  • However, only one family in this study had a good experience. This family’s school knew what they were doing and had a team committed to helping students access special education services.
  • Ten out of the 15 families interviewed switched their children from public schools to private schools or homeschooling. One example: “We moved to a private school that has better options for him. Moving schools was difficult. It was very far from where we lived and it had a huge financial impact. At the time, I was a single mom. That was a really big deal when you are a single parent trying to pay $24,000 so that your kid can get a basic education. It’s just brutal.”
  • Many parents found it difficult to get appropriate services and support, even after obtaining a diagnosis and accomplishing an IEP. Many families needed additional supports outside of the school system, like tutors.
  • Struggling to have an appropriate student evaluation in order to qualify for services was a frequent occurrence. A frustrating example: “I tried to get the Seattle public school system to evaluate my son through a series of more than 40 emails back and forth over 2-3 months, and they lost his information. His private school teachers had documented him in the classroom to show he needed an evaluation. But they (Seattle Public Schools) kept losing his paperwork; they failed to follow up at the end of the year [summer]. In the fall, I contacted them again and they said that they had provided a response saying that they wouldn’t be evaluating him. I didn’t receive anything, and their response to that was they sent that email to the wrong person. They said they responded in time but accidentally sent it to the wrong person.
  • Results of extensive and expensive private professional testing is disregarded by schools.

A respondent who was a teacher explains that Seattle Public Schools does not always have the correct resources to test people properly. They are not necessarily up to date with what private neuropsychologists are testing for. The school psychologists want to use these more limited and sometimes outdated assessment tools, rather than accepting what families bring in from outside psychologists and other private specialists.

One example: “…Nobody said a word… but in the fall when he didn’t qualify again, I said, ‘What do you think, could it be dyslexia?’ And then they said, ‘We can’t diagnose that.’ So, I said, ‘Ok, who does that?’ They said, ‘A neuropsychologist.’ I said, ‘Ok, can you refer me to one?’ They said, ‘No, we can’t do that.’ So I went home and did all my research and found a neuropsychologist. We did get private testing done, we got back the diagnosis, and he was diagnosed with dyslexia. I ran into the school’s psychologist and I told her what his diagnosis was, and she said, ‘That doesn’t mean he will qualify for services,’ and I was taken aback. And still, at this point, I didn’t know what the laws were. I don’t know why I didn’t look it up. I happen to be a lawyer…”


  • In the state of Washington, there needs to be legislation to better fund special education in schools.
  • Transparency with policies and procedures in the special education system will help parents access services for their children throughout the evaluation and IEP processes.
  • Information must be readily understandable. This would require the districts to rewrite information for a normal English reader and translate it for families requiring this service.
  • All staff and faculty at each school in the Seattle/King County area need more extensive training to better understand learning disabilities and the needs of these students.

If these steps are taken, students in the special education system will have an easier time accessing services, teachers will be able to effectively recognize learning disabilities, and they will be able to support and accommodate the child properly.

Final Thought

There are so many heart-wrenching stories in this study, including how teachers did not listen to the parents. It does not seem like parents are taken seriously. You can only imagine that people who are low-income are having a much more difficult time getting the services needed for their children.