Author: Carol Yaworski, Former Executive Director, LDAO
Source: LDAO

“I don’t want my child labelled!”

In my almost two years at LDAO, I believe that this phrase best characterizes both our greatest triumph and frustration as an organization, and represents a parent’s greatest educational dilemma. Countless times since my arrival, I’ve heard this phrase and its faithful companion, ” My child’s school doesn’t want him labelled.” The context is usually a scenario in which a child several years into their education is struggling to keep up. An otherwise bright child is not learning to read or is failing math and his parents and sometimes his school are desperate to find out why. The decisions begin. Is an assessment necessary, should an IPRC be held or is this just a manifestation of immaturity which time will correct? Valuable time is often lost and the child falls even further behind. At the heart of this statement is a parent’s wish that their child’s opportunities not be limited and their fear that the label will do just that.

In our efforts to help the public understand learning disabilities, LDAs have delivered a series of messages that can both reassure and demoralize. People with learning disabilities are of average or above average intelligence. The term “gifted and LD” is not an oxymoron. We all know of successful people in many high profile endeavours who have a learning disability. This reassures us that with the right help, a different way of learning can lead to success. That’s the good news, the positive message.

There are other accurate, yet less encouraging descriptors with which everyone affected by learning disabilities struggles. It’s neurologically-based. Does that mean brain damage? It’s called a disability, a word that some reject in favour of euphemisms such as ‘learning differences.’ And finally, it’s a lifelong condition which removes hope for permanent solutions or for outgrowing the problem. These latter messages, while being honest and accurate, are not messages of hope and understandably some people with learning disabilities or those who care for them accept the positive messages and reject the others. What’s the harm, they’ll ask?

There are two types of harm here. The first is a denial of access to services and the second a more abstract but equally damaging kind of denial.

Let’s deal with the first. The fact is that in order to receive the appropriate remedial assistance under the new funding formulae, an assessment resulting in identification is necessary to access intensive funding (ISAs). Furthermore, under the Special Education Per Pupil Allocation (SEPPA), receiving basic and sufficient remedial services is often made very difficult. Too many school boards are attempting to avoid the IPRC process and are not committing adequate resources to professional, timely assessment. This is sometimes done under the guise of wishing to prevent a child from being labelled. Even if we accept a benevolent motivation, a lack of access to the education that remediation brings seems a high price for a child to pay. How can feeling better today be worth a lifetime of underachievement? How can we also ignore the reality that the most successful people with learning disabilities are those who understand what they can and can’t do and what they need to move forward?

More than it has been in the past thirty years, school attendance is becoming a measurable process. Starting next year, students must pass Grade 10 literacy tests to graduate from high school. As an association, LDAO is pushing hard to ensure that LD students are accommodated and not exempted because if they are, they will not leave high school with the diploma and skills necessary to succeed in post-secondary education, if that is their goal. A certificate of completion and being warehoused rather than educated is a surefire path to a life of dependency or at best subsistence jobs, when the potential for much more often exists. It is our view that high school students with learning disabilities must have access to the accommodations necessary to level the playing field and to do that it is essential to recognize the learning disability and what remedies are required. Identification or labelling holds the educational system accountable and provides the roadmap to appropriate remediation. There may be occasions when a child receives the appropriate help without identification, but they’re becoming increasingly rare and it’s a risk with lifelong consequences.

Finally, let’s look at the other argument against labelling, namely the consequences on a child or adult’s self-esteem and how they’ll be viewed by others. A disability is simply not being able to do certain things, such as hear, see or walk. For someone with an auditory processing problem, it can mean the inability to decode complex oral instructions when a written list of those same instructions poses no problem. For such a person, certain jobs, such as paramedic work for example, will always be a problem and in that context they will be disabled. However, any number of other options exist and with the right information, the right choices can be made and doors can be opened. When I hear a parent’s reluctance to “label,” I’m usually struck by the thought that the child knows that something’s wrong and that the learning disability label is invariably preferable to the other labels they carry such as lazy, stupid, immature or bad.

My most satisfying moments at LDAO have usually been with adults who are delighted to learn after decades of heartbreak and confusion that the source of their frustration has a name and that, while this means that they’ll continue to experience difficulties in some areas, through self-awareness and eventfully self-acceptance, new opportunities and options appear. We recently heard from a member who wrote to thank us for help and support over the years which has resulted in her son soon successfully completing his first year at university. She describes with pride his ability to articulate his strengths and weaknesses and identify the things that he needs to offset his limitations. By facing his situation head-on, this young man’s parents have helped him to turn a label into a set of instructions leading to a bright future.