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Debunking the “Disability” Label

Demystifying Learning Disabilities

The word ‘disability’ continues to carry with it a slew of negative connotations. While professionals have made leaps and bounds in the techniques used to identify and diagnose “disabilities”, we as a society are still plagued by the preconceptions conjured in our minds by this word. But did you know that 1 in 10 Canadians lives with a learning disability? For many there is still even more mystery around what a “learning disability” is. According to the official definition provided by the Learning Disability Association of Canada, “learning disabilities” is a term that refers to “a number of disorders which may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding or use of verbal or nonverbal information. These disorders affect learning in individuals who otherwise demonstrate at least average abilities essential for thinking and/or reasoning. As such, learning disabilities are distinct from global intellectual deficiency.” But what does this all mean?

What a learning disability is NOT:

  • A learning disability has nothing to do with a person’s physical ability
  • A learning disability does not mean that a person is stupid, or incapable of acquiring new skills
  • A learning disability does not mean that a person is lazy
  • A learning disability does not mean that a person is emotionally unwell
  • A learning disability is not a social or behavioural problem, although social and behavioural issues may arise from a learning disability

What is a learning disability?

A learning disability is any condition that complicates how a person learns. It can take many forms, and there is still a lot that is not yet known about these disorders.

Dyslexia: Dyslexia is considered to be a reading related condition. It has a wide spectrum of severity, and those who have dyslexia will not necessarily experience the same challenges. Because every person is different, like any learning disability, dyslexia must be looked at as it applies to the individual.

  • People with dyslexia often have difficulty sounding out words
  • Those with dyslexia may not recognize words as quickly when they are written
  • Sometimes people with dyslexia have trouble spelling

Sadly, many children struggle with dyslexia for years without having their individual learning needs met. It is an unfortunate reality that if a child is slow to learn new things this is equated with being lazy, or, not trying hard enough. In reality, when these same children are approached differently, they excel and thrive.

Dysgraphia: Dysgraphia is a learning disability that effects how a person writes by hand.

  • Those with dysgraphia often have poor handwriting
  • People with dysgraphia may have difficulty producing on paper what their mind is thinking
  • Dysgraphia can make it hard for people to take down notes in class

A person can have dysgraphia and additional learning disabilities as well. When children with undiagnosed dysgraphia are scolded for messy handwriting it is extremely frustrating for them. By approaching the specific individualized educational needs of a person with dysgraphia, learning becomes accessible again.

Dyscalculia: Dyscalculia is a learning disability that makes it more difficult for a person to interpret numbers.

  • A person with dyscalculia might have an increased difficulty recognizing patterns in number sets
  • When a person has dyscalculia it can be more difficult to master mathematical concepts

When one sees that their child struggles with math, it is only natural to think “well, my kid just isn’t a math person”. But this was no doubt the initial thinking of every parent with a dyscalculic child. This emphasizes the necessity of early assessment and intervention. Indeed, the child may not be a “math person”, but perhaps their struggle is not with the math itself, but with how they are being taught.

Talking a bit about life before diagnosis

Out of necessity people with learning disabilities are exceptionally talented at blending in with their peers. This makes it more difficult to identify the features of a learning disability later in life. Of course it is ideal to catch a learning disability as early as possible, not only so that the child can have their educational needs properly addressed, but also so that their self-esteem is not damaged by feelings of inadequacy. Not everyone who has trouble in school has a learning disability, but there are many students who get marginalized before they are even assessed. In fact, many people with learning disabilities have extraordinarily high IQs. These IQ scores are completely disproportionate to their performance in conventional learning environments. From this it is vital to realize that people with learning disabilities can do all the same things as those without learning disabilities – they just need to approach learning a little bit differently.

Inside Edmonton Academy

Celebrating the Graduates of 2017 – On Their Way to Greatness

On May 26th I had the honour of attending a truly inspiring evening. The occasion? Edmonton Academy’s thirty-fourth annual awards dinner at which five unforgettable young men graduated with all the pomp and circumstance befitting their incredible achievements. In the Fantasyland Hotel’s opulent ballroom, the mood was jubilant. Not only was this evening the celebratory culmination of a year of hard work and intense study for all the students of Edmonton Academy, it was also an important evening they could share with family and friends.

What I found truly exceptional was that each and every student – grade 3 to 12 – was recognized for their unique talents and individual accomplishments over the past school year. Everyone had something to be proud of. As each class was called to the stage it was not only the students who beamed with pride, but their teachers as well. To an outsider meeting the staff and students for the first time, I was struck by the limitless devotion the teachers showed for their students.

It was this devotion that all five graduates cited as the crucial driving force during their academic journeys. As Aidan, Noah, Trace, Connor and Dawson took the stage it was not only the academic and administrative staff that were overjoyed – it was also their fellow students who so clearly admired and respected each of them. In a heartfelt and highly entertaining tribute to the graduates, teacher Adam Love expressed his confidence that each of the five young men he had gotten to know so well would find success and distinction in their chosen fields.

2017’s valedictorian was Aidan Cranston, a confident, gregarious young man with his sights set on a career in psychology. “I was pretty surprised when they told me that I was the valedictorian,” he admitted. Aidan then explained that he had decided to take a year off before beginning his studies at MacEwan University, “It’ll give me time to work, save up money and get some life experience.” When asked how he felt about leaving Edmonton Academy he responded “I’ll definitely miss people, but it’s time to move forward.”

After many years together the five students grew extremely close – how could they not? “Sometimes it felt like I spent more time with these guys than my family,” joked Trace Funk one of the class historians. In subsequent conversations all five of the graduates agreed that it would be really strange not to see one another every day. Their mutual fondness and appreciation for each other was beautifully illustrated in a speech given by Trace Funk and Dawson Schmidt. The two exchanged comical banter of sentimental memories juxtaposed with deadpan retorts – they had the audience in stitches. Laughs aside, the group’s camaraderie was the aspect of Trace and Dawson’s reflections that stood out above all else. They poked fun at their fellow graduates like quarrelsome siblings in a way that could only be understood as unbreakable friendships.

By the time they threw their graduation caps in the air, even those in the room who did not know the young men extremely well could see that their exceptional personalities and unwavering ambitions would take them far in the next chapter of their lives. What was remarkable to me was how certain each of them was about their future goals. As I spoke with them I could see how fully-formed these life aspirations already were in their minds. Noah Farrah who first came to the school in 2015 after being home schooled – the only member of the group who could say that he transferred into a larger class than he had been in – had always clearly seen himself as a first responder. “I always knew that I wanted to be a fire fighter, I’m going to do my EMT training first though,” he said. “Being at Edmonton Academy was really great for me confidence wise, and the teachers really tried to help me with my goals.” Noah knew from a young age that he wanted to be a first responder, but the Edmonton Academy teachers were so invested in his future that they helped his dream come into focus by introducing him to people in the field so that he could gain greater perspective.

The graduate with the most influential career aspirations was also the most soft spoken of the group – or so it seemed before I got him started talking about politics! Conner Kitching confidently stated during commencement that Canada would one day have him as Prime Minister. He was not ashamed to admit that when he first started at Edmonton Academy he was extremely nervous, but he also believes that without the support of his teachers he would not have realized his limitless potential. Conner is, as one could assume from his future goals, passionate about Political Science. In the fall he will take his first steps along the long path to the highest office in the land.

We can look forward to the cinematic innovations of Trace Funk, who his classmates all assured me, is destined to have his creative vision ignite the silver screen! Trace, a personable young man with an unbridled enthusiasm for film, looks forward to following in the footsteps of his directorial idols – most notably, Quentin Tarantino. “Obviously I have my own ideas, but I love Tarantino’s work,” he explained. I asked him if he had an idea for a specific movie he would like to make – his masterpiece, “I have so many ideas and there are so many movies in my head, I don’t think it would be fair to talk about just one.” He told me that he really enjoyed the newest Spiderman movie, and I had to ask “How do you feel about remakes?” He smiled, “I don’t dislike remakes – they get a bad rap. You just have to do the remake right – you have to bring something new to it,” a thoughtful insight from a director so early in his career.

Soon Dawson Schmidt will be enlisting in the Canadian Armed Forces, an aspiration he says he has had since he was a small child. With no family already in service, I was intrigued about how he initially became inspired. “I always knew I wanted to serve in the Special Ops Unit, I don’t have any family in the Army, but I just always knew,” he declared with unwavering conviction. “Special Ops is kind of a young man’s job, it’s harder to do as you get older. Joining now, right out of high school, I’ll have a solid career ahead of me,” he explained knowledgably. I then asked the obvious – what would he do after his service. “I think I’ll probably become a dog trainer,” he replied. Noting my astonishment he smiled knowingly and continued, “In Special Ops I want to work with bomb sniffing dogs. Later on, I’d like to help train them. I’ve always been really great with animals. I can read them really well, so I know I’d be good at training them too.”

After the ceremony was over there were big hugs, emotional good-byes and promises to stay in touch. I recalled my own graduation and remembered uttering those same words, but with empty sentiment, “Let’s stay in touch.” But as I listened to these five, I knew that the words were sincere. They would, through thick and thin, be friends for life – the future psychologist, the national hero, the lifesaving fire fighter, the cinematic innovator and the Prime Minister.

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