Learning Disability or Learning Opportunity?

Cheryl Lovstrom, Community Learning Network

0 4 5 April 2022

Learning disability. Two words that strike terror into every literacy practitioner’s soul. Thinking back to my early days as a Literacy Coordinator I can still remember that sinking feeling. A flood of voices came out of the woodwork to fuel the self-doubt. “I’m not qualified to help someone with a learning disability.” “I don’t have the right education.” “What if I mess them up for life?!” Statistics don’t help either. “It is estimated that as many as 30% to 60% of adults in foundational learning/literacy programs have LDs.” (Rising to the Reading Challenges of Adult Learners: Practitioner’s Toolkit, p. 13) 

The voices were loud. And scary. But they were wrong. Dead wrong. I had entered a system where learning disabilities are simply learning differences. What? Caring, compassion, and curiosity are the key tools you need to help any learner, especially those with a learning disability. What?! 

So, the whole time I was fretting over how badly I would mess up a learner if I did the wrong thing, I was actually on the right track? This was too much! It turns out those 3 C’s (caring, compassion, and curiosity), the things CALP staff do so very well, are actually key elements of working with adults with learning disabilities. Who knew?! Certainly not me, and certainly not right away. Let’s unpack those 3 C’s, shall we? 


“Adults born and raised in Canada who attended Canadian schools but still struggle with literacy skills are likely adults with undiagnosed learning disabilities who were not properly served in childhood…When they end up in your CALP, they already know they are different from their peers, but they do not know why.” (Serving Adults with Learning Disabilities in a CALP Setting, p. 10) 

Knowing that many learners who come to CALP may have an undiagnosed learning disability is pretty daunting. How do we help them feel more at ease in this new “school” setting, when school was probably not so fun for them? That’s a lot to ask, especially if the office still looks “school-ish”. In some cases, there’s not much that can be done with the physical space, but the emotional space is definitely fair game. Consider this typical CALP interaction. 

A potential learner walks through the doors of your CALP. You greet them with a warm smile and say, “Hi! How can I help you today? Let’s sit down and chat a bit.” After a short conversation you ask, “Would you like something to drink? Can I get you a coffee/tea/water?” From minute one you are doing everything you can to put the learner at ease and help them feel comfortable in the space. Soon enough you may be learning about the learner’s work, home, pets, and sharing a bit about yourself as well. Little by little you are building relationship. Your genuine caring helps to ease the tension and the learner begins to relax. 

This is step one. 


Compassion and caring go hand-in-hand. You show caring and start building a relationship. Within the relationship you will likely learn the adult has experienced challenges and barriers to learning. Compassion for those challenges helps you investigate with the learner to find the best ways for them to learn. Compassion, then, fuels curiosity. 

This is step two. 

It’s important to note steps one and two often happen simultaneously and over time. For an adult who struggles with foundational learning, it may take several visits (over several months) to trust you and become comfortable enough to take the next step. 


You care, you’re compassionate, you’ve built the relationship, and the adult is ready to take that leap back into learning. You know they likely struggle with a learning disability, so what now? This is where curiosity actually keeps the cat alive. 

My favourite “teacher”, Ms. Frizzle, says, “Get messy, make mistakes!” Don’t be afraid to learn alongside the learner. Get curious. What hobbies/interests do they have? What activities do they like best? Which ones could they do without? What worked last week? How can we make it better together? That didn’t work out, let’s not do that again! 

The fact of the matter is, at its heart, the CALP system is very well placed to help all learners, especially those who have a learning disability. We have learner-centred outcome measures with a clear emphasis on safe & welcoming space (caring), increased confidence & reduced barriers (compassion), and learner progress & program relevance (curiosity). 

The CALP Portal is also home to some amazing resources to support CALP staff and tutors (and, in turn, learners) in the learning journey. These are just a few: 

Serving Adults with Learning Disabilities in a CALP Setting guidebook – “In this resource, author Karen Plourde shares her own extensive learning about working with adults with learning disabilities throughout her career. Her goal in writing this manual is to build confidence in CALP staff to know they can change the learning success of adults with learning disabilities in CALP programs.” 

Rising the Reading Challenges of Adult Learners Practitioner’s Toolkit - The ultimate goal of the Toolkit is to help practitioners use effective teaching strategies to help struggling adult learners improve their reading skills. To accomplish this goal, we are drawing on years of research and practice from the fields of learning disabilities (LDs) and reading research. 

Answers May Vary guidebook and resources – “The Answers May Vary Guidebook focuses mostly on activities, strategies, and resources that practitioners can use to help a person improve in seven of the nine essentials skills: reading, writing, document use, numeracy, digital literacy, thinking, and continuous learning skills.” 

Building Literacy: A Learner-Centred Guide for Teachers, Tutors, and Practitioners of Adult Literacy e-Learning – “Teaching adult literacy is not straight-forward. It is far more complex than many assume, including, at least in my experience, many political decision-makers and many institutional administrators. Our own teaching challenge is one of being aware and adaptable if we are to meet the evolving needs and goals of our learners.” 

Helping an adult with learning disabilities doesn’t require a degree, or even a great understanding of all things learning disabilities. Approaching learning with caring, compassion, and curiosity will help to keep the learner at the centre. Let their needs, their goals, and their learning successes guide you. And use these incredible tools to help along the way. That’s a recipe for success with any learner. 

Cheryl Lovstrom
CLN Central RSS


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