Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Terrible Trajectory of the Undesignated BC Child

There was an article published in the Vancouver Sun, detailing the odyssey of BC mother and teacher Lori Drysdale's search for services for her son with Non Verbal Learning Disabilities. The article was largely accurate, but there is a serious discussion underlying Lori's story, which needs to be addressed.

Minister Fassbender has decided that because about 10% of all BC students were identified as having special needs last year, there are 10% of students in BC schools who have special needs. This is like saying, "because I see only white cars parked on my street, all cars are white." In fact, the number of special needs students in our schools is a great deal higher than 10%, and I will tell you why.

First, waiting lists to get formally identified are very long. In one inner city school I worked at, we accessed about three to five assessments per year. By the end of September, the children on the, 'urgent' list, numbered about twenty five. As a result, at best, in any given year, one fifth of students who urgently needed assessment would receive it. Many a student languished on these lists throughout their elementary school career, and some never received assessment. Assessment is necessary for a child to be, 'identified' or 'designated', and thereby, funded. So children who had urgent need for funding, did not even get diagnosed, never mind provided the services they deserved.

Second, because teachers know about this, they realize that only children with the most dire needs will be assessed. There is no point at all, in putting a child on the assessment list if his need is 'only' severe. He won't receive assessment. The teacher, therefore, will not receive the information about how his brain works, that would facilitate her tailoring her instruction to his needs. The parent will not be told what, exactly, is making things hard for his child. And the child himself, will often believe that his problem is simply that he is, 'stupid', a notion regularly reinforced by his peers.

The teachers, of course, will move heaven and earth to help the child anyway. But without funding, without Educational Assistants and with massive classes, the unidentified child will often fall into the abyss of not really understanding, trying to cope, and becoming increasingly frustrated and angry. Imagine, if you were forced to sit in a PhD level biophysics class, or a PhD level neuropsychology seminar. You would be told to listen, contribute, read the relevant material and speak and write intelligently about what you read and heard. How would you respond? The lesson lasts for five hours, with a break for lunch. Would you be able to pay close attention, and meet the standards of the class? Most people wouldn't. And most people would quit, act out, or do something else to keep themselves busy. Which is exactly what happens to the unfunded LD, after day, after day, after day......

Eventually, of course, this makes him angry. Me, I'd've been angry within about half an hour, but many LD children in this situation will go on for years without throwing bricks through the plate glass. People with Learning Disabilities are some of the bravest and strongest people I know. However, eventually, they will flip their gourds, and rightly so. When this happens, they finally get their diagnosis. But their diagnosis is not for LD, it's for.....Behaviour/Mental illness.

Behaviour and Mental Illness are inextricably linked as single categories, according to the BC Ministry of Education. There is Category R, Mild to Moderate Behaviour/Mental Illness. That's how you are assigned if you are acting out but you don't have two agencies beyond the school, involved in your care. Only if you can get into enough trouble to have two (also profoundly underfunded and overworked) agencies involved, do you rate Category H, Severe Behaviour/Mental Illness. Category R isn't funded. Category H, gets you the lowest available funding.

Of course, if you are no longer attending school, which by now is often the case, you won't get any help at all, because your underlying problem, a Learning Disability, has never been acknowledged. All you know at this point, is that you are widely viewed as stupid and lazy. You are well aware that you can't keep up in school, so you don't go. It really, really hurts to be seen as stupid, so you need to find a way to get rid of the constant, gnawing, emotional pain. You also need somebody, anybody, to accept and value you. So you fall in with other disenfranchised kids, who offer you ways to numb your pain: drugs, alcohol, cutting, eating disorders...anything to give you a sense that you are in control of your life. If you have the misfortune to become addicted, you sometimes end up finding a way to finance your addiction that is not entirely legal. When you get caught at these activities, you end up in my husband's prison school class. He tells me that essentially all of his students are struggling with one learning impairment or another, most have addictions, and many have English as a Second Language.

So Lori Drysdale, who as a teacher, likely knew about this trajectory our Government has chosen for our children with Learning Disabilities, decided to go the private school route. So did I, with my daughter who has the same diagnosis. But Lori gave up her house to make that happen. I gave up an extremely good job to move, to make that happen. For Lori, it has helped her son, but for my child, it did not. I will talk about why in another blog. Suffice it to say, Private school may help some, but it most definitely is not the answer for all, or even most children with learning disabilities.

Mr. Fassbender, who is lamentably unfamiliar with the issues in his Education Portfolio, and woefully uneducated in how to assess the literature on the topic, needs to understand that 10% doesn't begin to touch the students who need special educational intervention. What is sad, is that there are reasonable ways to address these needs, and we've known about many of them for my entire thirty five year career as a special educator, but until people like Mr. Fassbender decide to ask people who know what they're doing, without a funding agenda, the conversation about genuinely positive educational reform will never happen. So meanwhile, we fight our contract battles to try to assuage the terrible, terrible needs that, daily, we see unmet.

The true miracle of learning disabilities, is the astonishing number of children who do make it through to become functional citizens. They cope, and some thrive, but the wounds create scars that never disappear. And if you really need a financial reason to care about this, consider that for every dollar spent on providing a good education, seven to eight are saved in corrections costs.


  1. Thank you Cecelia! I know we have talked about this before- and I was not sure how the article was going to be written. Generally, it is still better than I thought it would be....I definitely liked that she interviewed Susan Teasdale about her class- The interview with the Surrey trustee....I did not like as much....But at least it shows the complexities of a classroom and I really don't take it as a slight against teachers at all...

  2. Celia, you outline the case beautifully. I would estimate that about 25% of the students in my typical grade 3/4 classes need extra help. A large percentage of those have undiagnosed learning disabilities. Others have high emotional needs, social development needs, and so forth. The medical system is also underfunded, so I often have students with undiagnosed autism and ADHD. You have explained why both class size and composition are so important. Composition helps to reduce the number of students whose needs are so great that they've actually managed to make the "urgent" list and have received a diagnosis. Class size reduces the number of needs in generalm many of whom would qualify for a diagnosis should the funding be available for testing. Thank you so much for explaining so clearly. I hope your blog will be well read!

    1. Thank you so much! I figure, we all need to do what we can, because this has all gone on for far, far too long.

  3. Can I also add that some cope and some thrive, but a huge, huge number don't...many end up in the courts, and health care system...I have a cousin with dyslexia who was in and out of, nearly 50 he seems to be coping okay...but that is not an uncommon story. I read a stat that up to 70% of people in prison have an LD.....private schools shouldn't be what many parents feel, one of their only options....(I know some people home school, but what about those that work and can't home school?...or as you say Cecelia....have to give up a job...).....But many children don't survive and even if they do- what hit does that make on their self esteem and self worth?

  4. You are absolutely right, and I thank you for expanding on this.