Family issues reporter
Chris Canavan has been diagnosed with dyslexia and an attention disorder. To most of society, the Vancouver businessman has a "learning disability." Not to him.
"I'm not disabled. I'm not broken and I don't need fixing. I'm successful at what I do," says Canavan, 37, who also has an 11-year-old daughter with dyslexia and ADHD.
Instead, Canavan says he and the roughly 10 per cent of the population diagnosed with learning disabilities simply process information differently. What needs fixing, he adds, is an education system and a society fixated on deficits and unprepared to teach or accommodate the way some people learn.
His comments came on the heels of news this week of a future drug to treat learning disabilities. The drug, now being tested on Alzheimer's patients, would boost the performance of brain receptors that are crucial for learning. While the research is in its infancy, the possibility of medication has been met with enthusiasm by some educators and concern by others like Canavan who are wary about the implications of medicating cognitive disorders.
Canavan is part of an increasingly vocal group who feel society and schools must recognize and accept as normal a wide spectrum of differences in the way brains are wired.
This notion of "neurodiversity" – a variation in neurological functioning – first emerged among autism activists in the 1990s and is gaining ground in the learning disbilities community.
Sue Hall of Vancouver, founder of The Whole Dyslexic Society, stresses that while those with dyslexia are seen as having a reading impairment, their way of interpreting the world is also a gift.
"Dyslexia is not a medical condition," she says, adding it is often accompanied by an unusual perceptual ability that isn't recognized in typical classrooms and calls for visual and multi-dimensional teaching strategies. "The system is telling these children they are disabled, but they're not."
But for some educators the notion of a future drug to help struggling children is welcome news.
"I think it holds a great deal of promise for parents and children with learning disabilities and the whole field," says John McNamara, professor in child and youth studies at Brock University in St. Catharines.
McNamara, also co-president of the Canadian Association of Educational Psychology, runs clinics for children with reading difficulties and sees the toll it can take on self-esteem and development. While medication shouldn't be a first resort, he says, it could be one of many tools to "support the learning process" in kids with severe difficulties.
"If I were a parent of a child with a learning disability I would be happy to have it in the toolbox."
Tayyab Rashid, a school psychologist with the Toronto District School Board, says while drugs should not be the first line of intervention or viewed as a shortcut, if used cautiously they could prove useful for some children.
But the drug debate also raises questions about a system focused on disabilities and problems rather than strengths.
"We have been obsessed with fixing the weaknesses, supported by a flourishing industry which gave us many tools to identify those," says Rashid. In contrast, school psychologists who conduct assessments of students to diagnose learning disabilities have few resources to identify strengths. Rashid is unusual because when he tests students he also assesses character strengths like creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, citizenship and enthusiasm.
"I'm not denying (disabilities) but those problems can best be tackled by understanding the wholeness of our children," says Rashid.
The focus on labelling students according to their disabilities has largely developed because a formal diagnosis is needed to access many special education services.
Among those worried about this trend is California educator Thomas Armstrong, whose book The Gift of Neurodiversity, due out next year, will explore the strengths in many kids with ADD, dyslexia and other brain differences.
Canavan, who often speaks with teens and kids in his role as board member of the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, says the school system needs environments where different learners can thrive.
"It sometimes seems like society is trying to streamline everyone into a nice straight line. But we need people who learn differently."
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