Scholar urges schools fix on child's `greatness'

by Connie Bagshaw
Staff writer

Can't balance your chequebook? You could be the next Agatha Christie.

Christie, like many creative, successful people, including Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein, had a learning disability. In the famous mystery writer's case, it was difficulty with adding numbers. Both da Vinci and Einstein were dyslexic.

"Agatha Christie couldn't spell, had terrible handwriting and was incapable of balancing her chequebook," said Linda Siegel, holder of UBC's Dorothy Lam Chair in Special Education. "But people with learning disabilities often have strengths and talents that shouldn't be overlooked."

Siegel said that individuals who have difficulty learning arithmetic often are creative, possess good oral skills and have an aptitude for the dramatic arts. People with dyslexia may display artistic talents and mechanical skills, and excel at music and sports, particularly swimming, skiing and tennis.

"The learning disabled are neither lazy nor stupid. We must realize this, pay attention to their problems and make it an important issue for the educational system. Our schools need to ensure that the greatness in each child can flourish. A significant step has been to shift the question `how smart is this child' to `how is this child smart.'"

Siegel believes that a major problem facing the learning disabled is the way in which learning difficulties are defined, usually according to a rigorous measurement of the discrepancy between an IQ test score and the individual's achievement levels.

"If someone scores low on an IQ test but can't read very well, they may be considered slow but not learning disabled," Siegel explained. "Their problem is neglected, they get left behind and, as studies indicate, that increases their risk for developing emotional and social difficulties."

Her own research findings indicate that learning disabilities may play a role in adolescent suicides and the emergence of street youth.

Although frustration, a lack of self-esteem and emotional disturbances are common in people with learning disabilites, Siegel said the difference between who becomes a productive member of society and who may commit suicide is the amount of attention and help they receive from parents and the education system.

She will examine the known causes of learning disabilities and what can be done to address the problem during her address, Reconsidering Normal: Learning Disabilities in the Classroom, the second lecture in the Faculty of Education's series on important educational issues.

The lecture takes place at 7 p.m., Feb. 25 in the Robson Square Conference Centre. Respondents are Sandra Gebhardt, Learning Disabilities Association of B.C., and school psychologist Lorna Bennett. For more information, call 822-6239.