Would we ever ask a blind person to try harder to see? By Kathryn Burke

Kathryn Burke

This is a true story, but I am changing some of the pertinent details to preserve confidentiality and prevent myself from getting sued.  Well, it is more the latter than the former.

Let me describe the situation. It is about a 15 year old girl who is in her first year of high school. She has been diagnosed with a number of exceptional learning needs, including dyslexia, dysgraphia, and some level of dyscalculia. She tries really hard, but is challenged by issues around executive function. She has no innate sense of time. She has extreme difficulties figuring out how to complete a project. She gets overwhelmed and tends to procrastinate because she thinks she should be able to do the work. She just does not seem to be able to break up the project into its parts. She is scattered and is on medications for ADHD, but it is quite obvious that this condition could be better managed. She is very anxious, and has recently begun taking SSRI medications.  Her working memory is at the 5thpercentile, and her processing speed is at the 10th percentile. But, she is extremely bright – in fact tests in the superior range in aspects of perceptual reasoning.

She had a very bad day at school yesterday.  There has been a very nice substitute teacher in one of her classes. He has been there for about three months, is kind and has taken the time to get to know her. The substitute teacher has asked about the accommodations she needs to address her exceptional learning needs. This has been difficult, as the student has been notoriously bad at self advocacy. But, the substitute teacher has been persistent. In fact, he has actually been skilled in helping this young girl to do a better job in articulating her own needs.

Yesterday, the regular teacher arrived back in class. He told this young student that she did not need any accommodations because she was doing “just fine and he really did not know what the problem was.” The student, who is anxious to begin with and poor at self advocacy, elected not to say anything. She is upset with the change in teachers and that she did not get to say goodbye to the kind substitute teacher. There is a unit test in three days.  She became nauseous in the class. At the break, she rushed into the washroom and threw up.

The good news is that the Special Needs Coordinator for the school will intervene. Ultimately, the supports this young student needs will be organized. But, in the interim, the girl has had a sleepless night and has eaten little. She was so stressed for the remainder of the day that she basically was unable to pay attention in her other classes. She also was unable to fall asleep until well into the early hours of the morning. She is now extremely fatigued.

Why do situations like this occur with alarming frequency? Learning disabilities and indeed mental health issues are not as visible as physical disabilities. But they are certainly not invisible. Why is it that there are students throughout the globe that suffer the equivalent of mental torture in the classrooms at the hands of some teachers?

I must quickly and strongly acknowledge the legions of wonderful men and women that make up the ranks of teachers.  Please recognize that I am not condemning the entire teaching profession in this column. In fact, I believe the opposite. But the situation described above is not all that unusual. Change the gender, age, and some of the characteristics of the student in question, and it could apply to many.

We would never tell a person with vision loss to try harder to see.

We would never tell a person who cannot hear that it would be unfair for them to watch a show with close captioning.

Why do we set up road blocks for students with learning disabilities and mental health issues?

We would never tell a person with mobility problems, perhaps someone who walks with a cane, that they are prohibited from taking an elevator because it is possible for them to climb four flights of stairs. In fact, most able bodied people would take the elevator because they DO NOT WANT to walk up four flights of stairs.  What this teacher did to this student was the academic equivalent of telling her to walk up four flights with a cane instead of taking the elevator.

Why do we persist on making life a whole lot harder for people who already find life hard because of learning disabilities or mental health issues? Why do we put up barriers and road blocks?

Why are we sometimes so damn mean?

I just don’t get it.

Kathryn Burke, BA (Hon), MA is the founder of LDExperience. Follow Kathryn on Facebookand Twitter.

© Kathryn Burke and LDExperience. If citing this article, please do so as follows: Kathryn Burke, “Would we ever ask a blind person to try harder to see?” www.LDExperience.ca, December 15, 2010.