A Family's Journey with Learning Disabilities

Val Rathjen, Community Learning Network

1 5 5 April 2017

I’m so excited that the CALP system has had the chance to take LIFE Training with Dr. Anne Price from Calgary Learns this spring. LIFE stands for “Learning Is For Everyone”, and that is what CALP is all about. The special emphasis on this training reminds us that “everyone” includes tho
se who struggle with learning challenges. Statistics say that 1 in 10 people face some form of learning disability. That’s a lot of people, and yet individuals and families often feel very alone. 

Recently one of the RSS team shared an amazing video – “Searching for Words” - a Woman’s fight to learn. In the video Colleen Smereka shares her learning journey and the challenges that she has overcome along the way. So many of our learners can relate, even if just in a small way, to the feelings of defeat and discouragement that she expresses. What comes easily to many can be an exhausting and confusing mess for others. Colleen’s experience reminds us why we work so hard to encourage and empower the struggling learners we encounter, so they too can move out of shame and into possibility.

My family is one of many that have been touched by learning disabilities. Neither my husband nor I struggled with learning so we were surprised when both of our daughters faced significant learning challenges. In the beginning everything seemed fine; books were plentiful in our home and reading together was a daily practice. So it was a bit of a surprise when our eldest daughter struggled to read. This struggle became a larger issue as she started school. Let me tell you, nothing is harder than when your child is struggling and you don’t know how to help them. As the challenges increased, tests were done and we were invited to a meeting to discuss the next steps…  

As I left the meeting with the school I cried the whole way home. It felt like such a loss of those plans and aspirations all parents have for their children. It hit me - I was an academic snob. University was a given in my mind, it’s just what you did… I am ashamed to admit that I also came face to face with the realization that this was also a hit to my ego. Some of my value was wrapped up in my 7 year old daughter – which was totally unfair to her. Learning disabilities don’t just affect the individual – the ripples extend to their families as well, and everyone has to adjust, not just priorities and schedules but also mindsets and expectations.  

So… now what? The search for answers and strategies began. We had visits to the eye and ear doctors which yielded nothing. We read books, talked to experts, found a tutor… 

Upon the recommendation of the reading specialist our daughter saw, we had her tested for Irlen Syndrome, and lo and behold the pieces of the puzzle began to swiftly fall into place. Once she had her specially tinted glasses, words stopped moving and falling off the page as she read. Sentences began to link together and so did the meaning behind them. We went from having an exhausted and struggling reader to a child that only wanted books for Christmas. We were thrilled.

Then came child number two. Not new to the scene, just far enough behind that her challenges had not yet come to light. In her pre-school years she had struggled with fluid on the ear, which caused some speech issues but those were being addressed with the help of a speech pathologist. As she entered grade one, everyone’s hopes were high, and then the road took another turn. Our youngest was struggling much like her older sister had. This time we were armed with much more experience and knowledge. We were confident we would find the answer just like we had before, that “magic button” that would make everything alright.  

It’s no big surprise that each child is unique. We really shouldn’t have been surprised when there didn’t turn out to be a magic button. We tried everything we knew and sought out experts. Still, we seemed to have more questions than answers. I watched my vivacious and outgoing daughter retreat into herself, afraid to try new things for fear others would find out that she couldn’t read. 

Along the way we had an educational psychologist test our daughter. In all honesty I was hoping for a name or something that I could point to and say, “This is what she has. This is why these things are so hard.” I thought being able to name my enemy would also lead me to a step by step manual for overcoming said enemy. But we didn’t get that easy answer. Instead it was like pins had been dropped on many parts of the map without a clear sense of how, or even if, they connected. Don’t get me wrong. It was incredibly valuable to have the assessment as it gave her allowances in school, such as more time to write tests and the ability to have a scribe. It just didn’t give us a “fix”.  

And there it was – my realization that it wasn’t about “fixing” the problem, but rather about exploring alternate ways of reaching the destination. While some people could plug their educational journey into life’s GPS and receive clear and concise directions, ours had many moments of re-calibration, course corrections and alternate routes. But we made it – high school graduation for both girls. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to complete my third and final graduation - to close the books and heave a sigh of relief that we’d made it.

As you can imagine, the journey has not ended for my daughters. The eldest is traveling and studying around the world, pursuing her passion for art, justice and people. My youngest – now 20 years old- is taking more tentative steps into the world. She has recognized that there are still some gaps that need to be filled, and this is where my family’s story intersects with the CALP world.   

Some of the learners who walk through your doors, looking for guidance and for someone to help them fill in the missing pieces of their puzzle, will have experienced a similar journey. Sometimes they will have goals that are clear and defined. Other times they might just need a cheerleader who will help them find a path that works for them. 

I want to encourage you to not get caught up in trying to “fix” people, but rather to help them find their alternate route.  

As a parent whose child could very well walk through your door, I want to thank you for the tireless work you do, especially with learners whose journey has been a challenge. I also want to thank you, for being a source of encouragement and awareness to me as I was finding my way. Just knowing that there are so many amazing adult learning organizations filled with people who genuinely care and invest in the people they serve, helped me push through with hope. 

You all help learners navigate their way and realize that their dreams are possible even if they have to take a different path to get there. That is an amazing gift to any learner. Keep pressing on. As someone who has lived up close and personal with learning disabilities – I can tell you - we need and appreciate you! 

Val Rathjen
Regional Support Staff, East
Community Learning Network


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