A Time for Change… Student-Led Individual Education Plans

Guest Blog Post by: Bev Clarke, Executive Director of LDAWE

Self-AdvocacyHaving reviewed many Individual Education Plans (IEPs) that indicate the student should develop better self-advocacy skills, I am always curious to know how the student will learn to be an effective self-advocate.   Whose responsibility is it to explain the student’s learning disability; the legislation that outlines his/her rights; the services / supports / accommodations available; relevant language; and ultimately the policies and procedures to be followed, when engaging in self-advocacy? Is the psychologist that diagnoses, the parent, the teacher, the school administrator, or outside agency such as the Learning Disabilities Association responsible for teaching the student to be an effective self-advocate?

How do we measure whether the student is becoming a better self-advocate?  Is it when the student requests the accommodations and support outlined in the IEP that was prepared for student by an educator, in consultation with a parent?  Is it when the student is able to work independently in the classroom?  Is it when the student is able to get what they need in classroom without demonstrating or causing frustration? Or… is it when they are able to effectively contribute and direct their own IEP?  The Ontario Government’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) A Resource Guide (2004) indicates that principals are required to ensure that those students over 16 years of age must be consulted in the development of their IEP.  The Guide further indicates, “that any student for whom an IEP is being developed should be consulted to the degree possible.”  So, when and how does this begin?

I am the "I" in IEPI have had many conversations with parents, educators, other professionals, who suggest that the child may be too young to understand his/her learning disability; however, when speaking to very young children, they are clearly able to identify their strengths, and more specifically their differences, and while I wouldn’t expect a primary student to be able to say “I have central auditory processing disorder, which makes it difficult for me to prioritize noise in the classroom, so it would be very helpful to me to have access to an FM system,”  I would expect a primary student to be able to say, “I can’t pay attention when there is too much noise.”  They may not know all the educational and disability lingo and possible solutions to addressing their learning needs, but they recognize their differences very early.  Self-advocacy instruction and support should begin early.

The United Nations adopted the motto Nothing About Us, Without Us for International Day of Disabled Persons in 2004.  Observance of the Day was intended “to focus on the active involvement of persons with disabilities in the planning of strategies and policies that affect their lives.” The motto relies on the principle of participation and has been associated with the global movement for individuals with disabilities to achieve full participation and equalization.  I would argue that direct instruction and support is required for many students with learning disabilities to have full participation in the development of their IEPs and to develop the skills and acquire the knowledge to become effective self-advocates.

Student Led IEPThe IEP is arguably the most important document developed regarding the student with exceptionalities at school. The IEP meeting provides an opportunity to discuss critical issues and make decisions regarding specific accommodations and support services.  Creating the IEP without the student or with only token involvement teaches the student that his or voice is not important (Hawbaker, 2007); it is important for students with learning disabilities to not only be the receiver, but the author of their accommodations (McCarthy, 2007) and observing the student’s ability to meaningfully contribute to the IEP provides the school team with a way to measure the effectiveness of the self-advocacy instruction.  The goal is for students with learning disabilities to move from others leading their learning to students leading their own learning, with IEP meetings providing an opportunity to practice their decision making skills and gradually increasing autonomy to promote increased self-responsibility (Connor, 2012).

Students cannot be expected to know appropriate meeting protocol, systems, policies and procedures, and all the lingo the surrounds issues associated with education, disability, and legislation without instruction; however, they can be taught this information, with support and instruction from parents, educators, professionals, and local agencies. Developing effective self-advocacy skills as an elementary and secondary school student prepares the student to successfully advocate for themselves in a post-secondary environment, in the workplace, and in the community.

References:

Connor, D. (2012). Helping students with disabilities transition to college – 21 tips for students with LD and/or ADHD. Teaching Exceptional Children. 44, 5, 16-25.

Hawbaker, B. (2007) Student-led IEP meetings: Planning and implementation strategies – A case story. Teaching Exceptional Children Plus. 3, 5.

McCarthy, D. (2007). Teaching self-advocacy to students with disabilities. About Campus. 12, 5, 10-16. doi:10.1002/abc.225.

The courage to get real

Stylized drawing of young woman and lion, sky in background, reaching for heart representing courage.

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”   Anais Nin

In a previous blog article (When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change) I talked about Malcolm Gladwell’s contention that learning disabilities may in fact be what he called “desirable difficulties”. He contends that in spending a lifetime confronting and managing a learning disability, a skill set is forged which turns out to be a significant advantage when harnessed in the right way, potentially resulting in something extraordinary. I believe that one of the character traits forged during this process is the ability to function in the face of fear: courage.

Having courage is not the same thing as being fearless. In fact, appropriate fear plays a very important role in our survival. It would not be smart to ignore fear when we are faced with legitimate threats; it’s the thing that warns us that it’s time to fight or flee. Fear was indispensable to our ancestors confronted by sabre-toothed tigers and marauding enemy tribes. It wears different, less physically threatening faces in the modern age (often, it may in fact be False Evidence Appearing Real) but it still feels just as threatening and provokes the same instincts as it did in our ancestors. Courage is the thing that allows us to rise above the fear, to respond bravely when every instinct is telling us to run (or hide). Courage trumps fear, empowering us to meet challenges, stretch our limits, and find fulfillment in our lives.

It’s hard for me to use the word “courage” without thinking about one of my favourite movie characters, the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. The interesting thing about the Cowardly Lion is that he was so focussed on his fears that he couldn’t see things as they truly were. In the beginning he is ashamed of being afraid, not understanding that true courage means taking action despite our fear (something he actually does frequently to protect his friends). In the end though, with a little help from the wizard, he is able to “change the way he looks at things” to recognize and accept his authentic, courageous self. He is finally led to the discovery that courage had been within him all along, and learns that you don’t have to be fearless to be brave.

So what does this have to do with learning disabilities? Just this: That school can be a scary proposition for a kid with a learning disability. Will I have to read aloud in front of the class? Will I be able to plan ahead and practice my passage so that I don’t screw it up? Am I going to blank out on the exam again, even though I studied hard and I know the material? Am I going to be bullied again today? Will I be called stupid or lazy or be laughed at in class? Why am I doing so poorly when I work so hard? And yet these kids get up each morning, marching bravely off to school to face whatever dragons may await them there. If we agree that courage is a kind of inner resolve, a resiliency that allows us to face scary circumstances head on, then let’s agree that these kids have it in spades.

It’s been said that courage doesn’t always roar; sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says “I’ll try again tomorrow”. That is what kids with learning disabilities do every day. But there comes a point for them when an even greater courage is required: The courage to acknowledge, accept, and embrace their learning disability in order to create the kind of life they want for themselves. I was reminded of this recently when a young woman arrived at our office to identify herself to us as a student with a learning disability, and to request accommodations. She explained that she’d had an IEP and received support throughout elementary school, but had decided to go without it in high school because she “didn’t want to deal with the label or the stigma”. She did reasonably well in high school with a lot of very hard work , and had hoped that trend could continue through university. It did not, which brought her to a realization that it was time to fully accept, confront, and manage her learning disability, and she is now well on her way to doing that. She readily admits that the prospect of that is scary, but she is ready to take it on…with courage.

I asked her what had ultimately spurred her decision to finally explore this aspect of herself without shame or embarrassment, and her answer was simple: “I was just tired of being afraid.” She went on to say that what she always had feared was being vulnerable in the face of other people’s judgement and rejection. She had always felt pressure to present her best possible self, and there was no place in that perception for anything resembling a flaw or an imperfection. It occurred to me as we spoke that we are all in the same boat, but that not all of us have the courage to deal with our issues the way this young woman was. Most of us do what we can to avoid confrontation with the “shadowy side” of our selves, but in finding the courage to learn about and accept all aspects of herself she felt lighter and truer and more authentic than she ever had.

Successful people with learning disabilities don’t get there by accident, and they don’t get there by denying who they are. And if it happens that who they are is in small part a person with a learning disability, then they go about learning what that means for them, and doing everything they can to understand and manage that aspect of the “self”. They don’t deny it. They don’t hide from it. They don’t run from it. They find the resolve to confront it and deal with it. It requires vulnerability, and self-acceptance, and authenticity, and…courage. And maybe that is one of the qualities that Gladwell is talking about as one of the positive side effects of living with “desirable difficulties”.

Author and lecturer Brene Brown had this to say about courage: “Courage is a heart word.  The root of the word is ‘cor’, the Latin word for heart.  In one of its earliest forms the word ‘courage’ meant to speak one’s mind by telling all of one’s heart.  Over time this definition has changed, and today we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But…this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak openly and honestly about who we are and about our experiences – good and bad”.

A Turkish proverb says that a lion sleeps in all of our hearts.  Real courage is about connecting with who we truly are by entering our own hearts and awakening our inner lion.  It’s about being authentic in the face of fear and vulnerability.  It’s about accepting and loving ourselves (and one another) warts and all, which let’s face it, can be a messy business. But it’s the only way to live an authentic life, and it’s one of the greatest gifts we can give to one another.

What YOUR Post-Secondary Teachers Need to Know

Guest Blog Post by: Kathy Hansen, B.Sc., M.Ed.

College just aheadSeptember has come and gone and we are starting to feel the rhythm of school days again.  It takes a month or so every year for my family to get into the routines—routines that help us feel more organized, calmer and even safer.   Every year the transition back to school comes with its ups and downs, but some transitions are bigger than others.  The transition to college is one I am most familiar with.  Every year first year college students venture into a new chapter of their lives.  For students with learning disabilities (and their parents), the transition to college can be even more significant than it is for their peers without LD.  (See the previous post Smooth Moves)

I want to share some experiences and thoughts, based on my research, about community college faculty, students with learning disabilities, and best practices for success.  Students with learning disabilities make up a larger portion of post-secondary students than ever before – in both Canadian and US universities and community colleges.  In Ontario, a growing number of young adults with LD are attending university, but an even greater portion is attending community college.  Over 8000 students with learning disabilities attended Ontario’s 24 community colleges in 2009-2010 and the number continues to grow. Community colleges pride themselves on being accessible, hands-on learning institutions with teachers and professors that provide student-centred learning environments.  Student Services Office personnel provide support for students with learning and other disabilities when it comes to transitioning to college, accessing accommodations, and ongoing counseling support.  One major difference between high school and post-secondary education is that students must seek out support, disclose their disability, and advocate for themselves.  For many students, the process begins in high school with a supported transition; high school teachers, parents, the student and the post-secondary support team work together to facilitate the transition.

College StudentsMy research has focused on community college faculty attitudes toward and their preparedness for teaching students with learning disabilities.  Faculty attitudes and practices contribute to the success or failure of students with learning disabilities in postsecondary settings.  In my research, I developed a valid and reliable instrument called the Faculty Preparedness Questionnaire to measure preparedness for teaching students with LD.  Preparedness was defined as knowledge plus attitude.  The questionnaire addressed themes such as knowledge of disability legislation, knowledge about LD and use of resources, attitudes towards students with LD, and their potential for success at the college level. By asking community college teachers about their knowledge, attitude and practices, I wanted to understand more about their perceptions of their preparedness for teaching the growing number of students with LD in community college.  I found that community college faculty had generally positive attitudes towards, and self-rated knowledge about learning disabilities.   However, despite their positive attitudes, college instructors expressed many myths and misconceptions about LD.  The biggest gaps were in the understanding of the definition of learning disabilities and in best practices for supporting student needs.  Instructors lacked knowledge about what a learning disability is and what it is not (i.e. It is not due to poor teaching, low IQ or cultural differences).  Instructors were more knowledgeable about the legal requirement of providing the recommended accommodations, but not about what they could do in the classroom to help students with LD to be more successful.  Instructors also expressed concern about students with LD being able to perform work in the real job market.

College StudentsTherefore the task remains—to improve knowledge about LD— understanding the definition, the learning needs of students, and how individuals with LD can succeed in college level learning and in employment situations.  If you are a student with LD attending post-secondary school (or know someone that is), self-advocacy can be a major factor for success.  Don’t assume your instructors or professors know about your learning disability.  As there are different types, and accommodations and learning needs are different, you can play a big role in informing your teachers about LD.  Meet your instructors in person during their office hours and share information about your strengths and learning needs, and your motivation for success in your chosen academic and career paths.  Ask them if they would like more information and send them some information about LD, or share a link such as LDAO.  Don’t be afraid to use your accommodations. Remember that receiving accommodations is your right and do not give you and unfair advantage, but rather level the playing field.  Sometimes students with LD attempt post-secondary education without accommodations, but so often this does not work out and the student ends up not doing well in the courses.  Better to use your accommodations, discuss with your instructors and follow-up when you get your tests or assignments back.  Share your successes so that more people come to understand that a learning disability does not limit an individual.

Accessible education depends on educators having the knowledge and attitudes needed to reduce barriers and provide an inclusive learning environment.  The good news is that college educators in my research indicated positive attitudes toward students with LD; however, knowledge is an equally important contributor to understanding best practices for teaching students with LD.  If you have other ideas on how to disseminate information about LD and the successes of post-secondary students in their academic studies and careers please share them on this blog!

 

References

Hansen, K. (2013) College instructors’ preparedness to teach students with learning disabilities. University of Western Ontario – Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository  http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/etd/1244/

Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology (SSC SAST; 2011). Opening the door: Reducing Barriers to post-secondary education in Canadahttp://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/SEN/Committee/411/soci/rep/rep06dec11-e.pdf

 

Kathy Hansen, B.Sc., M.Ed.

Professor, Educational Support Program

St. Clair College of Applied Arts & Technology

Windsor, Ontario

khansen@stclaircollege.ca

http://www.stclaircollege.ca

Self Advocacy

Guest Blog Post by: Shelley Lavoie 

Self-Advocacy

Often, persons who live with learning differences have also, unfortunately, learned to be afraid to self-identify, for a variety of different reasons. This may cause them not to seek help, help that could alter their lives in so many positive ways. Persons dealing with learning differences are generally of average or above average (and sometimes genius level) intelligence and frequently have a very high level of “learned creativity.” This means they may possess a wide array of creative methods and techniques designed to hide their learning differences. The good news is that self-advocacy can be the key both to success and getting the things they need and want in life.  Some helpful sites for Self- Advocacy are:

http://www.edac.org.au/letmespeak/html/selfadvocacy.html

http://canlearnsociety.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/LC_Self-Advocacy_N2.pdf

 

But as people open up and embrace the challenges of asking for help, they may then encounter another hurdle: where do you turn for specific types of help? Below is a list of resources in Windsor/Essex County where you can seek information and assistance related to a variety of learning differences:

http://www.ldawe.ca/

http://www.ldawe.ca/resources.php

http://www.ccrw.org/resources/resources-for-people-with-learning-disabilities/

The Importance of Self-Advocacy

knowledge_is_power1The more you know something or have a keen awareness of a subject, the more comfortable we are talking about it. These discussions are valuable for solving problems that may arise.

In the case of having Dyslexia – talking about the fact that he has a problem with reading, spelling and writing, my son Donny has decided that this disability is becoming more like a challenge accepted.

 I believe that his knowledge and awareness of his own unique challenges have helped him to become a more confident individual. He sees Dyslexia as a challenge in that he has to figure out how to take a task (like reading a novel) and make it work for him (buy/download the MP3 file of the that book, start earlier and budget more time, etc.). This is what teachers have been trying to do for ages!

 Since he was diagnosed and identified with Dyslexia, he has been kept informed of all the information he could handle at that time. In grade four he knew that he had a really difficult time reading, spelling and writing, but that was it! He did well in math and all his other subjects, as long as text was read to him.

 By grade eight, Donny was attending his own IPRC and helping decide his pathway based on recommendations made by the Learning Support Teachers, Counsellors, etc. He was also a strong advocate of his Individual Education Plan. He knew what was on it and what was best for his learning.

 Donny was a graduate of the Orton-Gillingham program and is familiar with the program so he has been encouraged over the years to help with tutoring (by listening to young students read). He also has the opportunity to sit on the Board of Directors for the Learning Disabilities Association – Windsor Essex as the students representative.

 Each experience and each chance to learn about LDs empowers him even more. He has been on The

Donny Rotary

Bridge radio show on CBC radio and was featured in Communiqué magazine. Last night I was very proud of him as he spoke in front of a group of Rotarians about his Learning Disability and the challenges he faces. He did a great job!

If your child is able to understand information about his or her learning challenge, empower them! Simplify things, but let them know that their challenge is not with everything – it is specific. This can create a shift in attitude. The idea that there is only a couple of challenges to face the task seems more manageable than if you feel that you don’t understand anything.

Empower your child! Talk with them about their learning issues. They will know what they are good at and what they have a hard time with. You can guide them through the tough parts and help to find strategies that will work for them. As they get older, ideally they will adopt these strategies as their own and know what works best for their own learning.

 quote-knowledge-is-power-rather-knowledge-is-happiness-because-to-have-knowledge-broad-deep-helen-keller-345698

 

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

Living with Dyslexia – Part One

There is so much to say when you are raising children with the gift of Dyslexia. There is truly something unique, creative and almost mystical about individuals born with this “learning disability.”

donny

I have been blessed with two beautiful boys, both of which have Dyslexia. However, Donny has faced the most challenges due to the degree with which Dyslexia has affected his life. Donny is my youngest boy and is going to be seventeen in a couple of weeks. I am very proud of him and the distance he has come, especially considering the challenges that he faces.

Donny had such difficulty learning how to read and write, yet was so bright in all other areas that it was very apparent there was an issue. I was amazed that someone so creative, bright and motivated to explore life could have such difficulty learning. He was diagnosed with Dyslexia and Dysgraphia by the school psychologist by grade four. This was mostly due to teachers that helped work to make him successful and partially from learning that advocating for your child is essential in order to help provide them with what is necessary for success in not only school, but life as well.

Part of the key is not only advocating for your child, but teaching your son or daughter how to advocate for themselves. I have always been one to hit the books when faced with an issue. Once learning my son had these challenges, I became engrossed in literature, blogs, webcasts, courses and any other piece of information that would help me to learn more about how my son’s brain functioned.

The most important part of the journey has been what my son learned. I have always kept him informed and updated on the exact challenges he was facing. We would talk about the problems he had and discussed how he could work to solve them. Donny was aware of his IEP and what it meant for his learning and has realized that he must learn to advocate for himself as he gets older. Donny does not let his learning disability get in the way or see it as a burden. He realizes that there are limitations to what he can do without some assistance, but with that knowledge he knows that he is an intelligent young man that can accomplish great things.

fish

I’ve touched only briefly on actually living with Dyslexia (and Dysgraphia) in this blog for a reason. I wanted to stress the success that Donny has experienced because he knows about his learning disability, the strategies he must use to overcome the challenges, and what steps he has to take to ensure that he has his needs met respectfully. I want to stress this because I remember the hopelessness I felt before we knew what was giving Donny a hard time. Once he was diagnosed, I again felt helpless because I wanted him to become an independent and successful individual and didn’t know the extent of his challenges. His Dyslexia is severe, yet he has persevered. I want to send that message.

The experiences Donny has acquired, due to his openness to share,  have empowered him. He now serves as the student representative for the Learning Disabilities Association- Windsor Essex and speaks openly about his challenges. Donny and I were just featured on the CBC radio program The Bridge, talking a bit about life so far. Please take a listen.

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