Accepting support: Thriving with learning disabilities | #teacher | #children | #kids

The journey toward success for students with learning disabilities is a long and bumpy road which starts at a young age.

Learning disabilities affect the ways in which a person takes in, remembers, understands and expresses information. According to the Learning Disability Association of Ontario (LDAO), it interferes with a person’s ability to perform basic tasks such as reading and writing. 

The LDAO says learning disabilities affect between five and 10 per cent of Canadians.

Giovanna Sacca is a Carleton University student with learning disabilities. [Graphic by Sara Mizannojehdehi]

Early identification

Deanna Drahovzal, a psychologist at Gilmour Psychological Services in Ottawa, does psychoeducational assessments to determine whether a student has a learning disability.

“From a very early age, someone can be very smart but have a hard time putting pen to paper,” Drahovzal said.

According to Drahovzal, early identification is key because it is easier to find learning strategies that work for individual students. 

Giovanna Sacca is a 21-year-old woman with curly black hair, a bubbly personality, and a kind demeanour. She is currently a fourth-year student at Carleton University majoring in psychology. 

Sacca is one of many students with a learning disability, but those who meet her might never know because her challenges are invisible. Her learning challenges include dyslexia, problems with organization, and mild Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). 

When she speaks, her speech is clear and her thoughts are put together, but she struggles with other basic tasks.

Her Grade 3 teacher suggested Sacca should be tested when they noticed that something was different about how she was taking in information.

“My mom has always been on the look for it because she could tell I was a little slow to develop,” Sacca said. “But in Grade 3, we had to do ‘learning to read’ books that say your grade reading level, and my friends would grab the Grade 6 ones and I was Grade 1 level.”

LDAO released common learning disability signs to help parents spot if their child is struggling, which range from slow vocabulary growth to poor coordination. 

Identifying learning disabilities can be draining emotionally and financially. [Graphic by Sara Mizannojehdehi]

Testing process

Proper identification of a learning disability involves getting a psychoeducational assessment, which is single-day testing conducted by a clinical psychologist. 

“A psychoeducational assessment involves a standardized assessment of a child’s intellectual and academic abilities,” according to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Toronto’s website.

The test is to help understand how a child learns and identify their struggles by measuring core skills, such as reading, writing and math, the website explains. 

“Every single time I would get tested, even from recently, I would feel so mentally drained like I wrote a 40-page paper,” Sacca said.

According to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Toronto, the assessment is conducted by a psychologist or psychometrist at a student’s school and is free for students studying in publicly-funded Ontario school boards. 

However, the organization warns wait times for publicly-funded testing vary and can be up to several months.

If parents and students want to speed up the process, they can approach private clinics which are typically able to provide testing in roughly a month. 

Private testing can cost anywhere between $1,750 (to test for a specific learning disability, such as ADHD) to $4,500 (for a standardized assessment looking at multiple learning disabilities). If students do not have private insurance plans to cover some of the cost, they will pay for the total out of pocket. 

Post-secondary students looking to be tested may be eligible for an Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) bursary that covers assessment costs.

As a child progresses through school, each time they graduate they have to redo the test to see if they will still need accommodations, Drahovzal explains.

Although the testing process requires a bit of work, Drahovzal said the effort is worth it.

“Diagnosis can be very helpful because of the various types of learning problems,” Drahovzal said.

She added those who take the test can get to know themselves better.

“I find the work to be very meaningful to help someone understand who they are, their strengths and weaknesses, what comes easy, to give them a sense of hope,” Drahovzal said.

While there is no one cause of learning disabilities, some factors affect brain development. [Graphic by Sara Mizannojehdehi]

Causes of learning disabilities 

“Experts are not exactly sure what causes learning disabilities,” according to the National Institute for Learning Disabilities.

The association explains some people are born with them, but they can also be developed as a result of an accident or illness as a child. 

Regardless of timing, learning disabilities are thought to be caused by something affecting the development of the brain.

While there is no specific reason why people develop learning disabilities, possibilities can include inheriting certain genes, complications during birth resulting in a lack of oxygen to the brain, premature birth or a mother’s illness during pregnancy.

“My mom has disabilities, so she felt like it was her that passed it on to me and felt all this guilt about having a child and giving them dyslexia,” Sacca said. 

Since learning disabilities are individualized, unique approaches must be taken. [Graphic by Sara Mizannojehdehi]

Unique approaches

Different types of learning disabilities are individualized for each person, so no one will have the same difficulties and strengths. 

Since each person’s learning disability is different, it is important teachers are patient and accommodate each student’s individual needs. 

High school special education teacher in the Peel District School Board, Suzanne Richardson, is consistently working with students who have learning disabilities with this necessity to accommodate in mind.

“It comes with the territory, you understand that a kid might not make a deadline, but it’s not the end of the world. Other teachers who are not so patient are going to be more rigid,” Richardson said.

Not all teachers understand the importance of patience. Sometimes if the teacher has to repeat themselves, for instance, they can become frustrated with the student, Richardson explained. 

Sacca said she had problems with a previous teacher who put her on the spot during classes.

“She’d make me read in front of the class and I would say ‘I’m not doing that,’ so she would try and get me to read even just one sentence, but I couldn’t even understand the page,” Sacca said.

                            [Graphic by Sara Mizannojehdehi]


Self-esteem challenges

According to LDAO, learning disabilities already make it hard to develop core reading skills since cognitive processes are affected, but students with learning disabilities also have to overcome the people around them telling them that they are unintelligent. 

“I had an elementary school teacher who didn’t believe in disabilities, so she basically would just fail me on everything and say, ‘You’re dumb, good luck,’” Sacca said.

It is the teachers who don’t understand the need for extra help, time, and guidance that result in students with learning disabilities’ negative experiences with schooling, Richardson explained. 

“The hard part is the kids that give up on themselves, those are the harder ones because we fight harder for them than they care to,” Richardson said. “It’s just sad that they give up on themselves and when someone comes in crying because they’ve always been told they’re stupid.”

LDAO says living with a learning disability can also have an impact on friendships, school, work, and self-esteem. 

“My uncle, who is usually negative all the time, but he would just be like, ‘You’re dumb, you’re stupid, I can’t believe you can’t spell this,’ Sacca said. “I would try and read something and get it wrong, and he’d call me dumb.”

Being considered ‘different’ can have a negative impact on the way the students view themselves, Richardson said. 

“People don’t understand that dyslexia is not just I can’t spell, it’s I can’t talk, I can’t describe things, because it’s really hard to communicate my thoughts,” Sacca said.

When a student with learning disabilities accept support, their academic life changes. [Graphic by Sara Mizannojehdehi]

Overcoming challenges with the right support 

Students can succeed using skills and strategies with help from caring teachers. 

“I have always found that I sort of root for the underdog and I found that when I was a [teaching assistant], I tended to gravitate to the kids who were struggling,” Richardson said. 

According to Richardson, having a person that is constantly reassuring the student that they can get to the finish line helps them feel not so alone.

Another high school special education teacher in the Peel District School Board, Fredric Suresh, finds students with a learning disability sometimes need to be pushed to overcome their challenges.

“One of the things I continuously work on is to teach students that they are not their disability,” Suresh said. “It’s very important only because the tag they wear, if it is not useful, it can become a crutch.”

Richardson said she tries to help students accept the help they need.

“I want them to understand how their brain is learning and encourage them to embrace their accommodations,” Richardson said.

Once the student has embraced their disability and learned to use it to their advantage by getting the right accommodations, their academic life changes.

“Getting extra help was really beneficial, and that was the one thing that helped me most was learning how I can challenge my learning disability,” Sacca said. 

For Sacca, having many people doubt her pushed her to want to do better. It helped that she also had the support that she needed to do her best in school. 

“I used it all to my advantage, I’ve always wanted to be the best and I wouldn’t settle,” Sacca said.


Carleton University students with learning disabilities can contact the Paul Menton Centre (PMC) for learning accommodations and support:

Featured graphic by Sara Mizannojehdehi.

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