Baylor sophomore uses experience with dyslexia to change law

Photo Courtesy of Jenna Benedict

By Matt Kyle | Staff Writer

Atlanta sophomore Jenna Benedict was diagnosed with dyslexia at the end of her third-grade year. After her diagnosis, she said she had to deal with a “toxic” fourth-grade teacher who did not believe learning disorders existed, refused to accommodate her and “bullied [her] into thinking [she] was stupid.”

As hard as these experiences were, Benedict said they taught her a valuable lesson. She said she had to learn how to find her own strength and become an advocate for herself and others.

In high school, she learned about a new law being proposed in her home state of Georgia — SB 48 — which would require dyslexia testing for children in kindergarten and certain children in first through third grade.

Benedict said she got involved with dyslexia advocacy organizations like Decoding Dyslexia and the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) in order to advocate for SB 48 and even testified in front of congressional committees in support of the bill, which eventually passed.

“It was very empowering to advocate for not only myself, but also advocating for other people who were little kids I didn’t even know yet,” Benedict said. “The first time I talked in front of them, I did cry. It was very emotional talking about my story and how I was bullied by not only the students for not knowing how to read, but also my teacher, and explain the experiences I’ve been through and how I’ve had to persevere.”

While advocating for SB 48, Benedict often missed classes so that she could travel to the Georgia Capitol to testify. She said she spoke about her personal experiences to illustrate the importance of early intervention, which she said is the “key point” to helping children with dyslexia learn the right way and set them up for a better future. Benedict also said another important tool for dyslexia testing is accessibility.

“I was diagnosed through the state testing, but that is very, very hard to get; I felt so bad for all the people around me who weren’t able to get adequate testing,” Benedict said. “Normally, to get tested for dyslexia and ADHD, it is thousands of dollars out of parents’ pockets. For people who have less money and are struggling, [dyslexia testing] is not going to be on their minds. So now that it is mandatory for every student, it’ll make it more accessible and easier for students to figure out the severity of their dyslexia.”

Benedict said she wants to become a teacher to prevent what happened to her from happening to any future students.

“I want to become a teacher to help support students in those situations and to prove to them that no matter what, you can do whatever you set your mind to,” Benedict said.

For her work advocating for SB 48, Benedict was named as one of the 21 winners of the 2019 Georgia Youth Leadership Awards, was selected to receive the first 2020 Destiny Initiative Award from the IDA of Georgia and was even given the pen used by Gov. Brian Kemp to sign SB 48 into law.

Benedict said she still stays active in leadership roles at Baylor. Benedict is the co-leader of the School of Education Student Ambassador Committee, where she organizes other student ambassadors for recruitment events and meets prospective students.

Dr. Jenifer Johnson, the director of undergraduate student recruitment and the first-year experience, said Benedict is an intentional leader who is focused on developing others.

“She loves the School of Education, and she wants to see it grow, so she puts in that effort and provides information to ensure that all of the ambassadors know what they need to be successful,” Johnson said. “Jenna is a sweetheart. She’s very kind. She’s very helpful and nice. I’m excited that she is pursuing education as a career because she is the type of person who is truly going to go into those classrooms and help those students overcome any type of learning disability they may have and grow into the scholars that they want to be.”

Benedict said the experience of advocating for the bill taught her to never be scared to speak her mind and to always stand up for what she believes in.

“I still can’t get it past my head that I got a law passed,” Benedict said. “It’s just something that’s always at the back of my mind. No matter how nervous I get, I don’t think I could do anything bigger than what I’ve already done. Any mountain that seems huge to tackle, I can take down. It’s just given me a more positive outlook in life.”