Smooth Moves: Transitioning to University

Banner that says "TRANSITION 101"

“The future belongs to those who prepare for it today”.
Malcolm X

Conventional thinking suggests that the transition from high school to university or college is daunting and intimidating for the students making it, but a recent study in the U.S suggests that the students themselves are relatively comfortable with it, perhaps inappropriately so.  The data suggests that many students are entering university or college without realistic expectations and without necessary non-academic skills  (self-control, independence, goal-setting, and discipline). According to the report, nearly half of students in grades 7 through 12 expressed that they do not believe that university will be difficult. The report identifies lack of awareness by students of the personal and academic challenges awaiting them as an important reason for academic failure.

The fact is that students pursuing higher education will be faced with a variety of new experiences and challenges that most are unprepared for. Greater levels of freedom and independence, vastly different teaching approaches and academic expectations, and much larger class sizes with greater anonymity are the just a few of the differences students will find.  And if they are leaving home to do it in a new community, they will quickly realize that they also left behind a vital support structure (parents, teachers, friends) which contributed in significant ways to their high school success.

My experience with students who have learning disabilities suggests that in some ways many of them may be better prepared for this transition than their counterparts.  In general, they have needed to work harder than their peers to arrive at the same place. They have probably needed to develop a unique set of skills in time management, planning/organization, and study strategies, just to stay afloat. They have needed to work longer, and harder, and smarter, so that by the time they arrive at university they are harbouring no illusions about it being easy.  If anything, they appear to have more realistic expectations about what it will take to graduate, and fully expect to be appropriately challenged by it.

Having said that, it is also true that students don’t always know what they don’t know. At the University of Windsor we offer a transition program for students with learning disabilities who are coming to us from high school. The BUILD Program (Bridge to University for Individuals with Learning Disabilities), is a week long program designed to provide students with the information and skills they will need to have a smooth transition to their post-secondary careers.  In order to assess the effectiveness of the program, we have students complete pre and post-program surveys.  At the beginning of the program, students generally feel that they already have all the tools they will need to have success.  By the end of the program though, after a week of exploring tools and technologies and supports and services that they hardly knew existed, students are expressing a recognition that there is still much they can learn, and indicate a desire and willingness to explore additional ways to make themselves more effective students.

The Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU), has long recognized that students with disabilities face a unique set of challenges when considering post-secondary education.  That is why they specifically fund offices for students with disabilities at every college and university in Ontario, and why they provide funding for The BUILD Program and programs like it across the province.  It is also why they funded the creation of a website loaded with information for students with disabilities who want to go to college or university. The Transition Resource Guide for Students with Disabilities is a great place to start if you are a high school student considering post-secondary options.  Arming yourself with as much information as you can will allow you to make the best possible choices for yourself, ensuring that you arrive at university/college appropriately excited and perhaps a little bit nervous, but confident that you are fully prepared to succeed into the future you have planned.

Image of a chart describing some differences between high school and university/college for students with disabilities

This chart summarizes some differences between high school and university/college for students with disabilities

When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change!

Autostereogram with hidden 3D image

This image may not look like much of anything, but if you look at it for long enough, in just the right way, it will reveal itself to you in ways that aren’t at all obvious at first glance.  Stick with it; there’s a 3D butterfly floating in the foreground.

Some of you may be familiar with MagicEye images like the one above, and some of you may have already developed an ability to see what is hidden there.  They’re called stereograms, and if you can break out of conventional ways of seeing to focus “differently”, a 3D image will emerge from the seeming visual chaos.  The moment when one is first able to see an image like this is a happy and somewhat dramatic surprise, as if a secret world has suddenly opened up to us. It seems to me that disabilities can be like that, and that stubbornly persisting in looking at them in conventional ways deprives us of the opportunity to see and experience the beauty, talent, and potential that may be hidden there.

There are a few things that got me thinking about this.  One was the terrific blog posting from Mr. Casey a few weeks back (The Advantages of AD(H)D).  In it, he talks about an experience that caused him to “reinvent” his  perception and experience of his own AD(H)D.  He describes shifting his focus away from any limitations, instead conceptualizing his AD(H)D as a gift that provided him with a skill set that many others do not possess.  In having the courage to think and focus differently, he was able to reveal to himself the gifts that were hidden beneath the label, and in doing so, re-invent his future, his life, and the attitudes of the people around him.

It also happens that right around the time I read Mr. Casey’s blog, I was also reading Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book,  David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.  It’s a book about “what happens when ordinary people confront powerful opponents of any kind, from armies and mighty warriors to disability, misfortune, and oppression”.  Gladwell proposes that facing difficult challenges can produce greatness and beauty, and that being an underdog can change us in fundamental positive ways that we fail to appreciate.

In his chapter called “You Wouldn’t Wish Dyslexia on Your Child, or Would You?”,  he suggests that dyslexia may in fact be what he calls a “desirable difficulty”.  He cites a recent study which found that about one third of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs, innovators, and visionaries have dyslexia.  Now, the conventional way of seeing this is that these are simply remarkable people who heroically “overcame” their disability to find success.  But…”the second, more intriguing possibility is that they succeeded, in part, because of their disorder–that they learned something in their struggle that proved to be of enormous advantage.”

This advantage, as Gladwell sees it, comes in a number of forms.  Dyslexics are forced to develop compensatory skills in order to survive. This kind of compensation learning, though much more challenging than conventional learning, can result in a brain that is hardwired to process information in profoundly different ways from the rest of us—ways that could provide distinct advantages in certain environments.

Secondly, people with dyslexia are often outliers, a common trait in successful entrepreneurs.  They are able to think outside the box, to imagine things that others cannot (Walt Disney comes to mind), and to fearlessly challenge their own preconceptions.  Further, they have the courage and willingness to take the kinds of social risks that are necessary to bring their ideas into the world.  Gladwell suggests that when an ordinary person (David) spends a lifetime confronting dyslexia (Goliath), a skill set can be forged which turns out to be a significant advantage when harnessed in the right way, potentially resulting in something extraordinary.

Finally, in the middle of all of this reading,  I heard an interview on CBC radio with an entrepreneur from Calgary, who was challenging the conventional notion that people with autism are unemployable.  He felt that this perceived disability also brought with it a skill set that would make individuals who had it highly productive employees if placed in the right environment (The Autism Advantage).   He knew that many people with autism are capable of intense focus, are comfortable with repetition, and have an incredible memory for detail – precisely the skill set that is in high demand in our rapidly evolving technology-based economy.  So he trained potential employees, educated potential employers, and matched them up with tremendous success. In other words, he thought outside the box, looked at the situation with a different focus, and allowed the potential and opportunity hidden there to be revealed.

We encounter situations every day where our perceptions are blocked by old expectations, unless we make a conscious decision to challenge those perceptions and  to see differently.  Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”.   All of which is to say that, even when it comes to disabilities, when we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.  And just maybe…our society changes with them.


(The LDAWE has been recognizing potential in employees with a variety of disabilities for quite some time;  read about it in Danielle Gignac’s blog article,  Torn Post-It Notes).

Not everyone is able to see hidden stereogram images, and many of us can only see them with a bit of practice.  Click here for 3D viewing instructions.

And if you are unable to see the 3D image in the above stereogram (and you’re tired of trying) click here for a simulated solution.

One-of-a-kind souls…

Image of ball of light in the palm of a hand, aginst a golden sky.

It’s Christmas (almost)!  And my gift to you is a guest blog from my friend and colleague, Christine Quaglia.  She’s a philosopher, a writer, a poet, and perhaps even a bit of a mystic, among many other things.   Right now, she is a Ph.D. candidate, whose research is focused on the perception of self in the face of disability.   She also happens to be in a wheelchair,  which is perhaps a propos of nothing but it does give her incredible insight into what it means to have a disability (whether it’s visible or not), in a world that isn’t always quite sure how to think about them.  She talks here about self-esteem, self-acceptance, what it is that makes each of us uniquely worthwhile and valuable in the world, and how we can nurture that in one another (particularly in our kids with disabilities).

One-of-a-kind Souls (by Christine Quaglia)

It was Pablo Picasso who said, “I used to draw like Raphael, but it has taken me a whole lifetime to learn to draw like a child”.  In that one sentence Picasso perfectly captures the moment in life when we all know who we truly are and live in full awareness of our one-of-a-kind souls. There are no questions, no doubts, no what ifs or could have beens – just a wide open field in which all things are possible. But then, childhood ends and, if you are Picasso, you start to draw like Raphael and, if you are the rest of us, you start to wonder “Who am I”, “Why am I here” and “What do I need to be doing”.  If you are lucky (again, like Picasso) you return some day to that natural state, to that field of all possibility but, before getting there, some growing pains are guaranteed.

So why does this fragmentation of self occur? What separates the child who just knew how to be from the person in the mirror? As it turns out, there are myriad reasons for why one can become separated from their essential nature and one of the big reasons has to do with trying to reconcile who we know ourselves to be, and how we best accomplish our goals, with who we are told we are, and how we are told to do things, by the larger world.

That experience is particularly poignant in the face of disability as it is one thing to have an invisible disability and to have to ‘out’ yourself when you need to do things differently, but, another thing altogether to feel one way on the inside, to know how you learn and think and process and to never have that image reflected back to you by the rest of the world. Or, worse yet to have those feelings, the things that you know to be true for yourself squashed, ignored, or, worse told are wrong and cannot be. What kind of message does that send? The kind of message that tells you there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to be.

Are there differences in what this fragmentation looks like for a person with a visible disability compared to the person whose disability is invisible? You bet. The person with the visible disability may be told they “look healthy” which implies they were to have looked sick. For the person with the invisible disability, like a learning disability, it may be being told “Oh, really? But you seem so smart” implying the person was smart but the acknowledgment of a learning disability has suddenly produced its opposite.

Now, the student who needs different tools by which to accomplish their learning becomes viewed not as an opportunity to be embraced but rather a challenge to be feared and those feelings become internalized. Instead of having strengths channelled, weaknesses are emphasized and those students are asked why they cannot be ‘more like everyone else’. And there it is: the first crack between what that student knows to be true for them and what they think they need to do in order to fit in and survive.

So, what does the student in that situation do? Maybe they become sullen and retreat, or, display anger, fear and frustration as they struggle to be, you guessed it, more like everyone else. The question for educators and advisors becomes how do we help those students to reconcile the truth of their reality with the perceptions of the world and the answer is: we don’t. Not now. Not ever.

The central role and function of educators and education should be to help students embrace how they do things and to show them the illusory nature of sameness and the truth of difference. We can show students that it is no sign of health to become adjusted to a sick society and, not only is sameness illusory and irrelevant but that there can be freedom in that knowing. The kind of freedom which allows for the recognition that we are all unique, special and in possession of a whole host of gifts that can be of service, value and contribution to the world. Our job, our best work will be done when we can show a student the way past self-doubt and help them to understand that their disability, and how they may have to do things, says nothing about who they truly are. The only thing that says that is their one-of-a-kind soul and that is already perfectly fine just the way it is.

Staying Different

Group of goldfish examining a very different looking bluefish.

“If you celebrate your differentness, the world will, too. It believes exactly what you tell it—through the words you use to describe yourself, the actions you take to care for yourself, and the choices you make to express yourself. Tell the world you are one-of-a-kind creation who came here to experience wonder and spread joy. Expect to be accommodated.”
Victoria Moran (Writer and inspirational speaker)

If you’re a student with a learning disability, nobody has to tell you that you “think different”.  You’ve been figuring that out for your entire life.  But it’s possible that you also got the message that to think different was to think wrong.  In case you haven’t quite figured it out yet, that message was never true.

One of life’s biggest challenges is being yourself (whoever that is) in a world that wants to make you like everyone else.  I’m not sure what it is about being “different” that scares us so much.  Its OK to be a little bit different, mind you, within certain parameters that we all subconsciously agree to, but there’s a tipping point beyond which being different is not OK any more.  It can seem like a dangerous point to cross, because standing out too much can often draw unwanted attention.  It’s been said that “the nail that sticks out farthest gets hammered the hardest”, and I think kids with learning disabilities often learn this lesson at an early age.  Being different for some of these kids has not been much fun, so who could blame them for wanting to take advantage of an opportunity to start out clean when they head off to university?

For students with learning disabilities, arriving in a new community to attend college or university can seem like a fresh start.  Nobody knows them on their new campus, so they don’t have to be “different” any more.  Or to put it another way, they can be different like everybody else.  They can step back from that imaginary tipping point, blend in like everyone else seems to, and leave their disability in the past. Or at least it seems that way.  It’s easy for students to be seduced by the idea that they can leave their LD behind them. No more labels.  No more resource room. No more being pulled from the classroom for special help.  No more stigma, or teasing, or shame, or embarrassment. No more being a square peg in a round hole.

So it’s not unusual for students with learning disabilities to start their university career without any supports at all.  Many of them choose initially not to identify to the disability services office, opting instead to stay under the radar and attempt university without the support or the labels or the baggage they’ve accumulated in arriving there.  It’s easy enough to do, really, given the invisible nature of learning disabilities.  In fact, the invisibility of LDs  (and ADHD for that matter) leaves some people questioning whether or not they are real, including even some of the students who have them.  It can seem easier to ignore that part of the self than to acknowledge, embrace, and love it.

The problem is, ignoring it typically results in bad outcomes for university students, who often arrive at our office after their first semester in significant academic difficulty.  They may have failed a course or two, or they may even be on academic probation, but they are usually receptive at that point to talking about their learning disability, and about the supports and accommodations to which they were entitled all along.  More often than not, a poor first semester is a hole that students can dig themselves out of, once they are ready to accept that aspect of who they are, to embrace their uniqueness, and to adapt their learning differences to their new environment. But it’s a problem that could easily have been avoided, if they were never made to feel embarrassed about their LD in the first place.

It’s true that we have come a very long way in our understanding of learning differences and disabilities, and in our acceptance of them in one another.  The vast majority of students with learning disabilities who choose university, arrive there prepared to self-advocate and accept the supports and accommodations to which they are legally entitled.  But…there are still too many who don’t.  There are still too many who have been made to feel that they are a little bit too different.  There are still too many who feel enough shame and embarrassment about their LD that they would rather risk academic failure than draw attention to this particular “difference”.

But what’s so good about regressing to the mean?  What’s so special about sameness?  Who wants to be average or ordinary?  Fitting in usually involves hiding our unique light under a basket.  It is vastly overrated, and often comes at a very great cost. The difference makers in the world have always been people who “think different” (or as Steve Jobs called them, “the crazy ones”), who don’t conform to the world, but who instead find ways to change it.   They do it with courage, without apology, and without embarrassment.  Which is exactly how students with learning disabilities should embark upon their university careers.

Some of you may remember Apple’s “Think Different” campaign from the late 90s. It bears viewing again, and it’s worth noting that many of the exceptional people in this piece are known to have had a learning disability, ADHD, or both

Apple Computers:  Here’s to the Crazy Ones

Predicting Success (and why hope matters)

Photo of tiny green seedling breaking through hard dry earth.

”Today’s students can put dope in their veins or hope in their brains.  If they can conceive it and believe it, they can achieve it.  They must know it is not their aptitude but their attitude that will determine their altitude”.                           Jesse Jackson

“Attitude is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than what people do or say. It is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill.”   And as it turns out, when radio preacher Charles R. Swindoll said this, he may well have been talking about students with learning disabilities.  A study published in Learning Disabilities & Practice suggests that there is a set of personal attitudes and behaviours which are more powerful predictors of success in persons with LD than traditional measures such as IQ, gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic status.

So what are these things that  successful students with learning disabilities are able to do that others seem to struggle with?  There are six qualities that set them apart:

  1. Self-Awareness
  2. Perseverance
  3. Proactivity
  4. Emotional Stability
  5. Goal-Setting
  6. Use of appropriate supports

Successful students with LD have a well–defined sense of self that goes far beyond their learning disability.  They tend to view their LD as simply one facet of who they truly are.  They develop an inner drive to never give up, but they also know how to change gears when something is not working in their lives.  They learn how to anticipate difficulty, and to take action which moves them toward a positive outcome.  They develop the skills they need to set realistic goals, and to reach them…step by step.   They find ways of recognizing and managing stressors in their lives, and can plan ahead for challenging situations.

The beauty of this is that these are all things that can be learned/developed from a very young age, with the right kind of guidance from parents and teachers.  Yes, it may come more naturally for some than for others, but at the end of the day (and this is true for all of us), it’s how we think and how we act that determines who we are and that shapes our destiny.  So when we’re looking at strategies, interventions and supports for students with learning disabilities, let’s not forget that helping to positively shape their behaviours and attitudes, and giving them hope, may be one of the most powerful interventions there is.

“Patterns of Change and Predictors of Success in Individuals With Learning Disabilities: Results from a Twenty-Year Longitudinal Study”      ( Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 14 (1).35-49 )

Loving Learning

Image of fish in a bowl at the edge of the ocean.

This fish “longs for the endless immensity of the sea”.   She just needs a little help.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”    So said Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (beloved author of The Little Prince), and it would seem to follow that if you want children to learn you must teach them to love learning.  The reality is that they already know how to do this, if we would only get out of their way.  Children are born with an innate curiosity and natural love of learning.  They don’t need anyone to teach them this.  What they need is for what’s already there to be valued and nurtured and used as fuel to launch them into the world.

In my last post (Tree-Climbing Fish), I somewhat reluctantly invoked the name of Albert Einstein.  I say “reluctantly” because I want to be cautious about perpetuating the stereotype of the famous super-human with a disability, who is so extraordinary that he overcomes every obstacle with a smile on his face, providing inspiration for all of the rest of us ordinary folk. The reality is that extraordinary challenges are conquered every day by all kinds of people with all kinds of disabilities, including learning disabilities.  I’m privileged to witness this on a daily basis in the work that I do with students who have ADHD and/or LD,  who have somehow never lost the joy that comes from learning.

One of those people is my guest blogger this week, Sophie Rutter, who only found out in her last year of high school that she has both LD and ADHD.  Now one full year into her university career, Sophie has become an ‘A’ student who is enjoying a level of academic success that she was never able to attain until now. And making it happen wasn’t rocket science.  She already possessed the intelligence, the resiliency, the work ethic, the curiosity, and a love of learning.  Once she also had the right tools and the right information, she had everything she needed to finally show the world what she can do.  I hope you enjoy reading these insights from the anything-but-ordinary Sophie Rutter.

Diagnosis: Learning Ability (by Sophie Rutter)

There are as many possible paths to a destination as there are people. For some, finding a path means checking a map and deciding which arrows to follow. Then there are those of us who have trouble understanding the roadmap we’re given and so go off the trail to forge a different way to our goal. This method requires some extra innovation and can take longer, leading some to call us “slow”. In the end, though, the journey leaves us with the same level of skill and knowledge as those who took the more conventional route. In the world of education, people with learning disabilities/ADHD are definitely off-roaders. As one of those students, I can attest to the fact that the amount of ability far outweighs the disability, if we take the time to consider the road less taken as a valuable discovery. I can also tell you that it is vitally important for parents and teachers, not only to see that potential, but to let their students know that they see it.

I have had people remark on how great it is that I’m attending university “despite having a learning disability”. While it’s true that I’ve worked hard to get here, I think it’s important for people to remember why I’m here. I’m here because I have strengths and gifts, which I’ve learned to use with support from those who see potential in me. Post-secondary students with disabilities are not only able to learn in spite of what we can’t do; we are able to learn because of what we can do.

The prefix “dis” means “opposite”, and so the term “learning disability” implies a lack of ability to learn. This is not an accurate description of anyone I’ve ever met with an LD. What we do have are difficulties in specific areas of cognitive processing that tend to be at odds with the way we are taught and tested in school. When we are given the chance to try less conventional methods, it becomes obvious that our lack of ability is not in learning, but in learning the way we are expected to.

The somewhat misleading term “disability”, along with words such as “deficit” and “impediment”, can cause damage when used carelessly. Kids as young as eight are separated from their peers to receive special education services, and what those students are told about themselves matters. Rather than being told that they “need extra help to understand”, we should be telling them the truth: they have difficulty learning the material the way it was taught in class, so let’s try a different way. They should never, ever be made to feel that they are less intelligent than their peers, and we should never let a label or diagnosis distract us from the unique gifts a child has to offer.

There are people who say that not all of us are “cut out” for post-secondary education. To me, the idea of a cookie-cutter education system is much more of a concern than the people who don’t fit into it. We might not be cut out for the teaching and testing methods often used in school, but that hardly means that we’re not cut out for education itself. When discussing disabilities with students, parents and educators should never equate difficulty with lack of ability to succeed. Furthermore, we all need to look at people in terms of what they can do, not just what they can’t, and use a broad definition of intelligence that allows all types of learners to shine. Test results alone will never show what someone is capable of. With that in mind, let’s not forget what any assessment should conclude: Diagnosis:  Learning Ability.

Sophie Rutter

Tree-Climbing Fish

“I can’t test you differently.  It wouldn’t be fair to everyone else”.     Really?

“What’s in a name?”, Shakespeare once asked.  And although his point was that what we call a thing does not change it’s essence or our experience of it, the reality is that what’s in a name does matter when we’re trying to communicate our ideas to others. So when we’re talking about what a learning disability is or isn’t,  let’s be sure that we’re using language that isn’t just focused on weaknesses and challenges, but that also conveys concepts like promise,  potential  and possibility.

I got to thinking about this when I met recently with a very bright incoming student who took serious issue with the term “learning disability”.

“I learn just fine,” she insisted, “if people would only teach in the way that I learn”.

She went on to suggest that “maybe the problem is that society has a teaching disability”, and it was her contention that she’d always had to struggle in a system that insisted on teaching her and assessing her in the same way as everybody else, disregarding the unique strengths that she brought to the table.  Admittedly, it’s a system that works for anyone fortunate enough to have a brain that’s wired to be good at The Three Rs, but not so much for the smart people whose learning strengths may lie in other domains.

So whether we call it a learning disability, or learning difference, or even if we choose not to label it at all, the reality is that there are smart kids with specific processing deficits who are getting left behind because their unique learning styles and strengths are often misunderstood or unacknowledged.  If they don’t learn what we’re teaching in the way that we insist upon teaching it, they are often labelled as “slow learners”.

Albert Einstein was one of those kids, initially thought by his parents and his teachers to be “slow” or “dim”.  A brilliant visual thinker and problem solver, he disliked most aspects of school and, and despite being (by most accounts) a moderately successful student, he dropped out when he was 15.  Everybody knows about the brilliant career that followed, but Einstein’s early experiences as a student gave him some unique insights about education and learning.  He had this to say:  “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

So…what’s in a name?  Much more than we think, because if a smart kid grows up receiving the message that she is somehow broken, or less than, or less valued, simply because she doesn’t learn in quite the same way as everybody else, we all pay a price for that.  We will eventually have produced an under-achieving adult whose significant gifts  were allowed to wither on the vine.   What amazing contributions might these people have made to society with the right support and encouragement?  We’ll never know, because those gifts will have been lost.

This is the time of year when I meet with lots of new students with learning disabilities, ready and eager to embark upon their university careers.  Many of them will thrive here because they were resourceful and resilient enough to figure out a way to climb the tree despite their labels  (almost always with the dedicated support of a few key people along the way, usually parents and teachers).  But for every new student with a learning disability who transitions successfully to university, how many are out there convinced that it’s not possible simply because they couldn’t “climb the tree” in quite the right way?

So to go back to Einstein’s analogy, we need to celebrate and nurture the fish, and not devalue them just because they don’t climb our trees in the conventional way.  We need to acknowledge that there may be creative ways the fish has found to climb the tree that the rest of us haven’t yet thought of.  We need to understand that there may even be ways to get to our destination that don’t need to involve trees at all. All of which is to say that we all need to be the change in a world where smart people never, ever become convinced that they are stupid.

Got 5 more minutes?  Check out the short video “Animal School”,  which challenges us  to value all learning styles.

Animal School

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