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Learning disabilities make school days hellish

Barb Bergsma deftly moved three fingers on her left hand.That’s the word “the,” she said.

Barb Bergsma deftly moved three fingers on her left hand.

That’s the word “the,” she said.

The Vanier learning assistance teacher was typing air.

That’s “water,” she said, with another flutter of fingers.

Bergsma’s a kinetic learner.

She feels words.

“They call it word blindness,” she said.

It’s a learning disability.

And Bergsma has struggled with it her whole life.

“When you’re a kid you don’t know what’s going on except that you’re not getting it and everybody else is,” she said.

“I always felt like the dumb one.”

One day in particular stands out.

She was in Grade 5 and Bergsma’s teacher suddenly went from printing everything on the board to writing in cursive.

“I understood nothing on the board, and I broke down,” she said.

Now, Bergsma teaches literacy to students who are struggling with similar barriers.

“You can’t use phonetics, because the phonetics get confused,” she said.

“Think of the letters a, i or e and all the sounds they can have — it’s so confusing.”

This is when kinetic learning comes in handy.

Bergsma didn’t learn to read until she learned to type.

“Every word has a feel,” she said.

“I didn’t think in letters, I thought in words, because words were my pieces and you put all those pieces together.

“So I tried to memorize how every word looked and what sound would go with every word.

“Letters didn’t come until I started feeling and understanding the differences between bilabial plosives.”

Bilabial what?

Bilabial means two lips and plosive means to push air, explained Bergsma.

“Pph — Bhh.”

“That’s what I teach kids now because I understand it and I understand how it feels in your mouth, as well as how it works in the English language.”

Most people are biologically wired to learn the code for language — how a sound connects to a symbol, but 20 per cent of the population suffer learning disabilities and are wired differently.

And for them, school can be a nightmare.

“Who wants to go to school everyday when you can’t do it?” said Bergsma.

“You might have good friends there, but if you feel like you’re hitting a brick wall all the time, why go and do that everyday?”

More and more teachers are starting to recognize signs of learning disabilities in students, but this isn’t enough, said Learning Disabilities Association of Yukon executive director Joel Macht.

Three Yukon kids in every class of 30 will have a learning disability and only one of them will be diagnosed, he said.

“Every class is going to have a student with a learning disability, so why are teachers not trained to meet their needs?”

On Monday, Macht locally released a nationwide study on learning disabilities.

The three-year, $302,000 study was the first of its kind.

“We’ve never had a comprehensive picture like this before about the impact of not addressing learning disabilities in someone’s life and the day-to-day impact of what that means,” said Macht.

The study found Canadians with learning disabilities are twice as likely to report they didn’t successfully complete high school.

And one-third of parents whose children have learning disabilities claim they can’t afford the necessary learning aids.

It also found Canadians with learning disabilities are less likely to find jobs.

Although the study was discouraging, it also gave Macht hope.

“It validates what we’re already doing in the Yukon with our tutoring programs, access to assistive technology and the availability of assessments and diagnosis,” he said.

The Yukon doesn’t have its own diagnostic team, but there’s funding for referrals to neuro-psychologists who can diagnose learning disabilities, he said.

However, this isn’t enough.

“What we need to see in the Yukon is a comprehensive, universal, research-based early screening and recognition program for kids ages four to eight,” said Macht.

“We screen kids for vision and hearing problems in school — why don’t we screen the brain for neurological differences?”

Learning disabilities come in many shapes and sizes.

Reading, writing and math skills are not the only indicators.

“Some kids have trouble with time management,” said Bergsma, who’s had students struggle with assignment deadlines and getting to class on time.

People with learning disabilities struggle with things most people take for granted.

“One of the biggest things for high school kids is going from a classroom where you might have one or two teachers who come to you, to suddenly having to learn how to go to all your classes, how to organize all your stuff and keep your locker organized — that is a huge quantum switch, especially for kids with learning disabilities.”

In academic environments students are not necessarily tested on what they know, they’re tested on how well they can spell the words, Bergsma added.

“They might know all about it, but can’t write the words.”

Teachers need to be flexible, and allow some students to take oral reports instead of written ones, she said.

“It’s like the mechanics teacher who wants a written exam rather than giving a student a practical,” said Bergsma.

“I would go out in the bush with the guy who can do the practical because if my snow machine broke down he’d fix it, but he won’t pass that small machines exam you want him to write — where’s the A?”