On a Mission to Define and Decode Dyslexia

Literacy How President Margie Bussmann Gillis reviews cards used to help kids sort out dyslexia. A longtime educator of kids with special needs, Margie is dedicated to helping increase understanding of dyslexia among teachers and parents statewide.
Literacy How President Margie Bussmann Gillis reviews cards used to help kids sort out dyslexia. A longtime educator of kids with special needs, Margie is dedicated to helping increase understanding of dyslexia among teachers and parents statewide. Photo by Jaki Lauper/The Courier

There's never a dull moment for Margie Bussmann Gillis, education director and president of Literacy How, Inc., in North Haven. She founded her company to help children and teachers deal with the complexity of dyslexia and she's working to change the state's legislative landscape-and she's often aboard a plane headed from Bermuda.

Margie is currently working with Allison Quirion, a parent and advocate from the Connecticut chapter of Decoding Dyslexia, in pushing to get Connecticut legislation passed to identify dyslexia as a disability. Decoding Dyslexia (www.decodingdyslexiact.org) has a mission to get legislation passed in each of their states and has received large support from other legislators.

Margie says, "If we can get it recognized as a disability, then the National Institutes of Health, which is probably the most well-respected institute that oversees this information, can recognize this definition, and we will have a jumping off point."

Margie has worked at the policy level through the Connecticut State Department of Education on the Advisory Committee for the Early Childhood Cabinet, and other state advisory task forces to help get early recognition in schools for dyslexia.

Meanwhile, she also works as a research affiliate for Haskins Laboratories and Fairfield University and yet seems completely un-fazed by how hectic this all seems.

"You just do what you have to do," Margie says.

That's an approach that she and her husband, Chip, share.

"When my husband lost his investment job in New York in the downturn, he decided to pursue his dream of his own re-insurance company," she says.

Bermuda is home to the world's second largest re-insurance market, so off he went. She now splits her time between North Haven and visits to Chip in Bermuda.

At the very same time Chip was headed south in 2009, Margie founded her company, Literacy How, which teaches teachers how to teach children to read."

"We've been doing this work through ongoing professional development workshops, while going into the classrooms as well, so teachers can see it in action," Margie explains.

She has been teaching children to read for more than 30 years and was a special education teacher in public and private schools for 15 years. During that time she became certified as an academic language therapist through Teachers College, Columbia University.

Margie's passion is helping those with dyslexia. She is the co-founder and a board member of Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities, the former president of the Connecticut branch of the International Dyslexia Society, a board member of the Dyslexia Society of Connecticut, and a founding board member of Literate Nation.

Reflecting on earlier times, she says, "In the '70s there was a misconception that dyslexia involved a visual perception, because many children reversed letters and numbers and so must be seeing things backwards.

The understanding of dyslexia changed when the reading disability was determined actually to be an individual speech sound condition.

She adds, "Connecticut and lots of other states are pushing to get legislation passed to say, 'This is what dyslexia is and here is the definition,' but there is a huge debate on what that definition is."

Margie says, "Any condition like dyslexia has to be defined like anything else before you can identify that a person has it."

Once schools and parents can define the symptoms, they can then assist children with their needs, she says.

Margie and her husband Chip have three grown kids, Kristin, Cara, and Patrick, who live in the area. Margie enjoys spending as much time in tropical Bermuda with her husband as possible and they are both thrilled to be expecting their first grandchild.

To nominate a Person of the Week, contact Jaki Lauper at j.lauper@shorepublishing.com.

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