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Learning Disabilities - a report on our Forum

Sept 21, I hosted a Forum on Learning Disabilities.   I hosted the Forum because I see individuals with Learning Disabilities as needing quicker and better support that many are receiving today.  I hosted the Forum because I see such support as critical to reducing societal issues in our schools and our communities as well as helping individuals.  I hosted the Forum for a personal reasons – that I have personally seen (including in my extended family) the difficulties and the trauma individuals experience when they do not get a diagnosis and help – and the tremendous contributions such individuals can make when they receive the support they need.

The Forum was introduced with some basic background on Learning Disabilities;

There are a number of specific learning disabilities.   These include as examples: Auditory Processing Disorder, Dyscalculia, Non-Verbal Learning disorder, Dyslexia, Language Processing Disorder and Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Deficit.
As Dr. Norman Doidge indicates: ““a reading problem can actually be caused by a weakness in any number of different brain areas and only one of these need be weak for a person to have a reading problem.”(1)  With improvements in brain imaging and in DNA mapping of genetic changes associated with learning disabilities, it is likely that the listing and classification of learning disabilities may be increasingly further defined over the next decade.


Figure 1: As the data above show, information from Canada’s National Learning Survey of Children and Youth shows that approximately 6% of children aged 10 to 15 have a learning disability.  It is likely that many children aged 6 to 9 years of age have not yet been identified and diagnosed so that the numbers in these years are lower.


Figure 2: Data from the United States which looks at the “cumulative” number of children diagnosed between ages 3 and 17 diagnosed with a learning disability is about 8%.  The proportion is higher in males (about 10%) than in females (about 6%).  The higher proportion shown here (8%) is likely due to the fact that this assessment is the cumulative number whereas Figure 1 is based on looking at each year separately.

 While there remains some debate about the precise proportion of children and youth with learning disabilities, the best evidence to date (Figures 1 and 2) suggests about 8% of children and youth will have a diagnosis of a learning disability at some point between age 3 and 17.

 Learning Disabilities and ADHD.  It is important to consider the relationship of ADHD to learning disabilities.   As Dr. Norman Doidge has said: “Learning disorders still fly under the radar are underappreciated and are frequently misdiagnosed and medicated as “ADHD” (1).   It is important to recognize that ADHD is not, by itself, a learning disability.  However, many children and youth with ADHD have a co-existing  learning disability like dyslexia or auditory processing disorder  [Up to 70% Mayes et al 2000] (2).

 Learning Disabilities can have serious life-long impacts.  As Dr. Norman Doidge points out “I saw … the developmental devastation those disorders had caused in terms of broken dreams, self-hate, depression, substance abuse. … the relationship of learning disorders to later mental health problems, substance abuse, job problems and marital failure is frightening.”  This Forum was organized to take a serious look at Learning Disabilities, their impact, how we can best support those with learning disabilities and what changes we need to provincial policies.


The First Panelist at our Forum was Sean Gander, Director of Services, New Directions for Children, Youth, Adults and Families , an organization which provides services to people with learning disabilities.   Mr. Gander is a former President of Learning Disabilities Association of Manitoba.  He has worked in the field of supportive housing, disability services and supportive employment for 25 years.

Mr. Gander talked of the extraordinary impact that supporting individuals with a learning disability can have on individuals and on communities. He told the stories of two individuals with learning disabilities who had major struggles.   The first of these was known for his explosive anger.  Assessment revealed that the reason for his frustration and bursts of anger was because of his learning disability.  He dreamed of being a long distance truck driver and visiting places all over North America.  Once his learning disability was diagnosed and he received help to address it, he was able to make progress, to get his trucking license and with continued support to become a successful long haul truck driver and he was able to live his dream and visit 40 states in the United States as part of his job.  It has to be noted that his first job lasted only three days, and it was not just the initial help with his learning disability which was important, but ongoing support as he struggled at one job after another until he became the success he is today.  This man is an example of how a learning disability can lead to a behaviour problem (his explosive anger), and how the support for his learning disability can transform a person from being difficult and disruptive into being a successful, productive citizen.

The second person described by Mr. Gander was a young man who was a in the care of child and family services.  He dreamed of becoming a social worker. He tried employment in various jobs and failed time and time again.  Finally, with some guidance, when he started working with children, he found the barriers and obstacles he had found in previous jobs disappeared and he was able to be very successful, to live his dream, and to make a big difference helping others in his own community.   His story illustrates further the obstacles a person with a learning disability can encounter and the success that can be achieved with help with the disability, and in finding employment which matches the dreams and skills of a person with a learning disability. 

The second panelist was Dr. April Buchanan, a registered psychologist in Manitoba.   Dr. Buchanan received a BA (Psychology and Learning Disabilities) and MA in Instructional Counselling from Simon Fraser University followed by a PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of Alberta.   Dr. Buchanan has worked as a university counsellor in BC, a clinician at the Calgary Learning Centre and a school psychologist in MB.  She is a past board Past Board member of the Learning Disabilities Association of Manitoba, and has had 10 years in private practice specializing in educational psychology, particularly supporting individuals and families living with learning and attention difficulties.

Dr. Buchanan emphasized the importance of support for a child with a learning disability.   She emphasized that it takes a “village” to support a child with a learning disability.  This village or circle of support may include a psychologist, the parents of the child, the home room teacher, the resource teacher, peer helpers, a private tutor and learning strategist and a doctor.  She said one of the limitations of getting a diagnosis is that the psychological testing to get a diagnosis may take 10 to 12 hours and cost $1800 to $2000 dollars.  Such a diagnosis is critical for the child to be able to receive the optimum support by all the members of the “village”.  Indeed, the diagnosis may be critical to getting even basic support for the child in school, and can be critical to getting accommodation for the disability when taking exams, and thus critical to success in school, whether primary, secondary or post-secondary education.   Fundamental to being able to create the “village of support” is the testing and diagnosis and the awareness of the nature of the disability and the type of supports needed. 

Dr. Buchanan emphasized that quiet students are often missed, and that students with learning disabilities become good at hiding their disabilities by compensating.   I can relate to this as our son, who had difficulty reading, appeared to be able to read well when he read a book back to us after we had read it to him.  In fact, it turned out he was memorizing the words and repeating them back rather than reading.   Only when we knew he had a reading problem could it be identified and helped.

Dr. Buchanan spoke of the need to reduce the barriers to get access to assessments and to trained specialists who can develop a learning plan for the child or youth or adult.  She also spoke of the benefit of smaller class sizes and the fact that most Educational Assistants do not have the training needed to help a child with a learning disability.   She also mentioned the potential of improved technology and computer based supports for those with learning disabilities.

Our third panelist was Jennifer Young, President of the Manitoba Association for Resource Teachers, has taught grades 1-8 and worked in Students Services as a resource and guidance teacher since 2011.  She teaches in Border Land School Division in Emerson in a multi-grade classroom full of diverse learners.      

Ms Young is also a grad student at the University of Manitoba, completing her Masters in Inclusive Education.  She has recently completed a research project on role changes for student services and administration since the amendment of the public school act in 2006, and is now doing research on strategies for preventing resource teachers’ burn-out.

Ms Young talked about the importance of “inclusion” in the school system.  Over the last two decades schools in Manitoba have made a great deal of progress in making schools more inclusive for children with disabilities, whether physical or learning disabilities.  She also talked of the importance an individual teacher can make to a child with a learning disability.  As well, she emphasized the fact that schools are seeing more and more anxiety in children and that it is vital to recognize this and to be able to respond empathetically to children. 

The fourth panelist was Tess Nguyen, the Program Supervisor at STEPS2WORK, an employment and training centre which helps  people with psychiatric or learning disabilities to enter or re-enter the workforce. It is a non-profit, charitable organization funded by Manitoba Education & Training.  Since 1962, it has helped thousands of Manitoba jobseekers to find and keep the jobs they want.  Ms Nguyen takes special pride in helping clients discover their unique talents and passion.
Ms Nguyen specializes in vocational assessments for those who are exploring further education or career options.   She uses a Computerized Aptitude Assessment, a Pictorial Interest Survey and career matching on an Occupational Database (O’Net).  STEPS2WORK utilizes the Valpar Aviator 3 software: a validated aptitude and interest assessment and planning tool which has assisted many clients to pinpoint a career they will enjoy.

Ms Nguyen stressed that individuals with learning disabilities are today an untapped human resource.   She made the point that adults with learning disabilities have tremendous potential to contribute in the workplace in Manitoba.   She said that the experience at Steps2work is that the success rate for helping those with learning disabilities is high.   With so much potential we need to be doing more to help those with learning disabilities succeed in finding and keeping a job.  Indeed, Ms Nguyen said that because Steps2work can only accept referrals from two agencies, this limits the number of people they can help.  Steps2 work could do so much more if their mandate was broadened and so that they could accept individuals with learning disabilities from more sources or even off the street walking in to the Steps2work office.

The fifth panelist was Angela Taylor, Inspire Community Outreach’s Founder and Chief Executive Office.  She has a BA from the University of Manitoba, majoring in Psychology with a minor in Sociology.  She has further training in Education, focusing on inclusion, and is currently in the University of Manitoba’s Disability Studies Masters program.

Ms Taylor has extensive experience with youth with various neurological differences, including trauma and autism. She has worked in Social Services for most of her career.   She has worked with families, caring for high risk and high needs youth and children, worked as a Clinical Case Manager, and volunteered with agencies in Winnipeg and British Columbia.  Ms Taylor and her husband raise 4 children.  She celebrates psychological, cognitive and neurological differences, and says her children have been her best teacher, and support in her efforts to help others to use their gifts and talents to grow.

Ms Taylor spoke of her own learning disability – a complex one.   It was an “invisible disability” which flew under the radar.   She was in foster care and she compensated – she “faked it until she made it.”   It was a struggle – but she has done well and has founded and is CEO of Inspire Community Outreach where she now helps those with learning disabilities and/or mental health issues. 

Ms Taylor is determined to help move towards better support for those with learning disabilities.  Advisors in this area are getting burned out because there are not sufficient publicly available and free resources.   Ms Taylor has been involved in writing a book “All Kinds of Minds” to help create awareness among children of the diversity in human minds and the need to help people see that having a “different” mind can be beautiful and strong, and that a “different” mind can be gifted in ways that can make things tough – but can also, when we better understand our mind be great.
There is a challenge to create accessible support for everyone with a learning disability, in part because the disability may be invisible – and there is a tendency for a person with a learning disability to “fake it”.   We can do so much more when there is accessible support and a recognition that it can make a big difference.

Following the panelists presentation there was an extensive discussion with a number of important points being made by members of the audience.

Tomas Ponziulius, who has a learning disability, stressed the importance of recognizing there are about 2.9 million Canadians with a learning disability. He spoke of his experience that there is a significant shortage of funding to help those with learning disabilities.   He also spoke of the importance to recognize that our brains show neuroplasticity which means that learning disabilities can be overcome with support.

Others in the audience stressed the importance of improving funding to support those with learning disabilities.  Panelist Dr. Buchanan made the point that it used to be that school psychologists did not have time to attend adequately to many children with learning disabilities, and that recent changes hopefully will enable improvement in this area.  Ms Young emphasized that changes are being made to the education curriculum to improve the awareness and the ability of teachers to help those with learning disabilities.

It was also emphasized that the level of support for those with learning disabilities is particularly short in rural areas, and that many children in the care of child and family services are not currently receiving the full assessment when they have a learning disability and that this should be mandatory to help these children.  Lastly, it was emphasized that the disability tax credit was often very difficult for those with learning disabilities to access.  All these are areas which need attention.
In addition to these comments at the Forum, individuals have written to me with comments or concerns.  A teacher at a school in Brandon found it was much easier to teach students when they were organized so that children at the same level of reading or math with in the same class.   It was found that all students in the class were then learning well and that behavioural problems in the class were markedly decreased.


I have heard from other teachers that children with learning disabilities who do not have physical disabilities as well often get much less support than is needed.   There continues to be, in many schools, and within the provincial government, a better understanding of the needs and requirements of children with physical disabilities, but much less understanding, ability and resources to support the needs of children with learning disabilities who do not have concomitant physical disabilities.

Another comment came from an individual concerned about recidivism.   With the high incidence of learning disabilities among those in Manitoba’s correctional institutions, all inmates should be evaluated for a learning disability and where there were any concerns about learning issues they should receive a full assessment and help to address the learning disability.   The result could be a dramatic reduction in recidivism for those with learning disabilities.

Concluding comments:
Learning disabilities are a pivotal issue.  Action here can help those who are affected, and can improve the health of our society.  It can improve education, employment and economic productivity, decrease behavioural problems in schools and elsewhere, decrease mental illness, decrease the number of children in care and decrease crime.

Learning disabilities are present in 6-8 percent of Manitobans. Because they impact families, schools, communities and workplaces they have an impact on all Manitobans. Quick, equitable access to assessments and to help for children with learning disabilities to get a diagnosis is an URGENT matter.   This is especially true in rural Manitoba!  A month in the life of a child is like a year in the life of an adult!  Children should not have to wait for a year to get an assessment.   Waiting for a year, could mean that a child loses a school year while waiting and that it is then just so much harder to catch up.

We need to improve access to assessments and help through better funding and support for Psychologists, Organizations like STEPS2WORK, Inspire Community Outreach, the Learning Disabilities Association of Manitoba and New Directions for Children, Youth Adults and Families.
In our education system we need to work towards the following: Ensuring assessments and support are there and accessible quickly when needed, Ensuring alternative learning pathways, including multigrade classrooms, are there for those who need it.  And we need to consider the concept of universal access – designing learning systems that work for all including those with learning disabilities.

In our education system we need to ensure students with learning disabilities can be accommodated – as for example when taking exams, and at work. There needs to be greater awareness of the human rights of persons with learning disabilities.  There also needs to be more work and opportunities for students to be in multigrade classrooms where students are placed at the level of their competence and can have a better to opportunity to learn and do well.

In our Child and Family Services system we need to ensure that every child taken into the care of CFS is considered for an assessment if there is any sign of delayed learning at ages 6, 8 and 10.

In our justice system we need to ensure that those who enter the criminal justice system have access to testing if there is any evidence to suggest a learning disability, and for those with a learning disability there needs to be supports to help with this and to help with the transition to work through organizations like Steps2work.

In our province, we need much greater awareness of learning disabilities so all can be part of the “village” which is needed for those with learning disabilities.  We are at a very exciting time for those with learning disabilities – with advances in knowledge happening rapidly – and advances in understanding neuroplasticity.  We should consider the establishment of a major research centre for learning disorders in Manitoba – to improve assessments, treatment, our education, CFS and justice  systems and the transition to work.

Thank you to all our panelists and to all those who attended the Forum.  Your participation is helping to put a spotlight on learning disabilities and the need to do better to help and support those with learning disabilities.


I asked our panelists who people with a learning disability, or a child with a learning disability, should contact.  As panelists explained to us, if you have a child with a learning disability, start with your child’s home room or resource teacher.  If you are an adult or need further assistance with your child talk with your doctor, with a psychologist like Dr. Buchanan or with Angela Taylor at Inspire Communications Outreach.  If you are still having difficulty, my office (jon.gerrard@leg.gov.mb.ca) will try to help you find the resources you need to succeed. 

References:


1) Doidge, N (2012) Foreword in “The Woman who changed her brain” by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, HarperCollins Publishers, New York.


 2) Mayes S et al 2000: J Learning Disabilities 33:417-42

Photos from the Forum

A Follow up comment:

I received the following comment from the mother of a child with a learning disability.  I have edited it to remove names, but felt it was important to share:

Addressing the issue of persons with learning disabilities having access to full and equal opportunities to reach their full potential: I believe it is not a question of "if we will take action", but rather "How do we start to change the current status of this issue?"

Our son was diagnosed with a learning disability when he was in grade one. We were fortunate that he had the opportunity to attend the Diagnostic Learning Centre, where he developed the tools he needed to reach his full learning potential.  He became an A plus student, athlete and artist. What went undiagnosed was his mental health concerns. The obvious learning disability shadowed a much deeper and eventually fatal mental health challenge. 

In order to successfully change the system we must think creatively to find the solution. We will need to approach many levels of access beginning with our education system. By changing the training for educators, supplying peer support in the classrooms, and information training sessions for parents we can turn the tide on this devastating and biased system. Once there is a diagnosis, what is the follow up? What place of responsibility do our physicians hold? What supports are in place for the family with a loved one in this position? How do we recognize and value the person who is so much more than their disability? Thank you for taking the time to address this significant subject.

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