- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 5, 2002

Emily Carambelas, 14, likes to look up words in the dictionary but when she looked up dyslexia, she saw a definition she did not like. Emily's Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defined dyslexia as "the impairment of the ability to read."

"That is only part of the puzzle," she says she thought at the time. "It does not explain the whole picture." She should know. Emily has dyslexia.

She did something few people ever would think to do: She wrote to Merriam-Webster Inc. and asked that the definition be changed.

The dictionary publisher said yes.

"I expected a form letter saying, 'Thank you for your input,' but when they wrote back and said they were actually going to change it, I was shocked," the eighth-grader says.

Dyslexia is a medical condition that affects upward of 20 percent of the population, according to the Baltimore-based International Dyslexia Association, which defines dyslexia as one of several distinct learning disabilities.

"It is a specific language-based disorder," the IDA's Web site reads, "of constitutional origin characterized by difficulties in single word decoding, usually reflecting insufficient phonological processing abilities."

Emily's quest started last year when her teacher at Jemicy School in Owings Mills, Md., suggested that Emily prepare for a national conference in New Mexico by writing an essay about having dyslexia.

"After reading Webster's Dictionary's definition of dyslexia, I find that I really do not believe that it helps one learn or grasp the concept of dyslexia [It] is not the full truth and doesn't tell the reader anything about dyslexia," Emily wrote in a letter last May.

Because Emily was busy like most middle school students she plays piano and three sports it was six months before she found time to write Merriam-Webster with her suggestion.

In her letter asking the publisher to consider changing its definition of dyslexia, Emily an aspiring comedic actress whose favorite subjects are natural science and math suggested that her definition of the disorder should be used instead.

Emily's definition read: "a learning dysfunction caused by a neurological based confusion in the brain. Varying in degrees, dyslexia is often familial and can affect reading, writing and mathematics The exact cause is unknown."

After writing the letter, Emily handed it to her mother sealed and asked her to mail it.

"I was truly amazed at how strongly she felt about it that she decided to write it," says Missy Carambelas, Emily's mother. "I was even more amazed, though, that they wrote back."

"I agree that the definition of dyslexia should be updated," Joan Narmontas, a researcher with Merriam-Webster wrote in an August reply to Emily's letter. "I have recommended [a new definition] be used as the entry for dyslexia in the [upcoming] 11th Edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary."

When reached later by phone, Ms. Narmontas says hearing from schoolchildren is not unusual when contacts are made in the context of a class project. Rarely, if ever, she adds, does the publisher receive letters from children or even adults writing of their own volition.

"I think a lot of people do not even bother," she says.

Ms. Narmontas suggested the following definition to editors at Webster's: "a variable, often familial, learning disability involving difficulties in acquiring and processing language that is typically manifested by a lack of proficiency, especially in reading, spelling and mathematics."

"Emily made some good points, and it was the impetus for the revision," she says. "Letters can and do make a difference, as it did in her case."

Merriam-Webster updates its collegiate dictionary series once every 10 years. The current 10th edition which contains more than 215,000 definitions on 1,600 pages is the most popular dictionary being sold today, according to Amazon.com.

The new 11th edition is expected next year, so Emily's recommendations will be implemented "fairly soon," Ms. Narmontas says.

The decision to write was a no-brainer, Emily says, even though she has kept her success fairly quiet telling only a few close friends, the principal of her school and a former teacher.

"Dyslexia affects everything I do," says Emily, who was diagnosed with the disorder when she was five. "But there is nothing I can't do because of dyslexia."

"Emily is just that kind of person where she would take on a big company like Webster's," says Caroline Alexander, Emily's sixth-grade science teacher at Jemicy, a private elementary school in Baltimore that educates dyslexic children from across Maryland.

Miss Alexander, who now teaches science at the Barnesville School, a private day school in northern Montgomery County, says she was not surprised when her former student contacted her to tell her what she had done.

"She never let dyslexia get in her way of doing assignments, and she is one of the most creative students I have ever encountered," Miss Alexander says. "I am very, very proud of her."

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