When Frances McGlannan went to the library in the late 1950s in search of information on learning disabilities, she was simply looking for a way to help her 7-year-old son overcome his difficulty reading.
But what started as a mother’s quest to aid her child quickly became a calling for McGlannan, transforming her into a champion for children with dyslexia. She went on to found a Miami school, develop new teaching techniques and contribute to countless research studies.
McGlannan died on Dec. 20 at the age of 98. Her tireless efforts affected thousands of children in South Florida and helped pass a federal law guaranteeing a free and appropriate education for children with disabilities. At a time when dyslexia was widely misunderstood, McGlannan’s work also helped educate the public about learning disabilities, which were sometimes seen as insurmountable problems or misinterpreted as a sign that a child was lazy or misbehaved.
“The amount of people and children whose lives she has changed is unfathomable,” said daughter-in-law Julia Fitzgerald McGlannan. “I can’t tell you how many people I hear say ‘Frances McGlannan saved my child.’ ”
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McGlannan grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and moved to Miami in the early 1950s with her husband, Austin Joseph McGlannan, an Army Air Corps pilot who got a job with a commercial airline after World War II. The couple had two children, Michael and Genevieve, and by the time Michael entered elementary school it was clear that he had difficulty reading.
“I had dyslexia. Nobody knew what it was at the time and she was just trying to find out what was going on,” Michael McGlannan said. “People in the school would say ‘He’s lazy, he’s not working.’ She didn’t buy it. … She decided to tackle it and find out what it was herself because she wasn’t getting any answers to the questions she was asking.”
Frances McGlannan scoured the library for information and started working at the University of Miami Reading Clinic, where she tutored children and helped conduct research. She also founded the Dade Reading Foundation, a volunteer group that shared information about dyslexia with teachers, parents and the local school board.
In the early 1960s, McGlannan traveled to Europe, where she learned new techniques to help children overcome learning disabilities. She also adapted multi-sensory techniques — mainly used to teach visually impaired children — to help dyslexic children learn to read. One technique, for example, involved asking children to trace cut-out letters with their fingers to commit the shapes to memory.
In 1964, McGlannan founded the McGlannan School for children with dyslexia and related learning difficulties. The Kendall school continues to operate more than five decades later.
McGlannan did all of this while raising two children and often worked past midnight to get everything done, Michael recalled. He would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night to find his mother asleep at the dining room table.
“She was just incredibly hard working,” he said.
Balancing work and family wasn’t the only challenge McGlannan faced. She was also ridiculed by educators and doctors who believed children with dyslexia couldn’t be taught, said Julia. “There were theories that dyslexics couldn’t be taught, that they were stupid, that they had word-blindness,” she said. “And they said, ‘Who is this woman that thinks she can do this?’ ”
But McGlannan was undeterred. In addition to running the school, she persuaded a publisher to start a scientific journal dedicated to the study of learning disabilities, where she served as one of the editors. She also testified before Congress to help pass the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which established the rights of children with disabilities. And in the 1980s, McGlannan reached out to teachers and publications in Latin America to share information about dyslexia and teaching techniques in Spanish.
“Frances’ eagerness to help children is evidenced in her active efforts to share all she knew,” said Joan Kasner, who has worked at the McGlannan School since it first opened, in an email. “The school was always open to university students and professionals who wished to observe and learn.”
McGlannan is also remembered as a caring boss and mentor. “She was very generous, she was a problem solver, she would put you in contact with anyone she knew who could help you with your situation,” said Cindy Rudin, the director of admissions at the McGlannan School.
McGlannan has been honored by the International Dyslexia Association for her contributions to education. Her legacy continues through her family and through her school, Julia said. Her daughter, Genevieve, is an educator, and Julia and Michael help run the McGlannan School. One of her grandchildren, who has dyslexia, even attended the school as a child.
The memorial service will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 11, at Epiphany Catholic Church, 8235 SW 57th Ave. in Miami.
In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Frances McGlannan Foundation Scholarships for Specialized Schools (www.francesmcglannanfoundation.net/) or the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital Foundation (mchf.org/mcglannan).