Kids' disabilities often missed, says expert

by Gavin Wilson
Staff writer

Many children's learning disabilities go undetected because schools are under-staffed and under-equipped, says Education Prof. Linda Siegel, one of Canada's leading experts in the field.

"Schools are doing more these days, but there are still many kids who get missed, particularly kids whose parents don't act as advocates for them," says Siegel, who holds the Dorothy Lam Chair in Special Education.

Although there is no hard data, it is generally believed that between eight and 10 per cent of the population suffer from some form of learning disability, Siegel says. Some may have attention deficit disorder or reading difficulties like dyslexia. Others may read well, but have problems with spelling, handwriting, foreign languages or arithmetic.

But teachers faced with classes of 30 or more students are too overwhelmed to begin giving learning disabled students the attention they need, Siegel says. Computers can be an invaluable tool for the learning disabled, but most schools are lucky to have just one per classroom.

Siegel also says Canadian school systems place too much emphasis on the link between IQ and learning disabilities. Students are only classified as having severe learning disabilities if they have a large discrepancy between their IQ and their reading skills.

"This is a controversial point. I believe there is no particular relationship between IQ scores and reading. You can have the same problems whether you have a high or a low IQ."

With more than 100 publications to her credit, Siegel has spent her career studying the best ways to predict which children will have learning disabilities so they can get the help they need before the problems become too severe.

And she has also seen the toll that undetected disabilities can take. Working with street youth in Toronto, Siegel found many of them suffered from undetected and untreated learning disabilities.

"Substance abuse, prostitution, even suicide are linked to undetected learning disabilities," she says. "It's much easier to help a child early on, before his or her self-esteem is crushed."

Siegel's current research project has assessed 200 people of all ages for learning disabilities. She also makes a point of discovering their strengths.

"For example, many people with learning disabilities have strengths in visual and spatial perception, or very good artistic, musical or sports skills. These may suggest ways to boost their self-esteem, techniques to help them deal with their disability or even career possibilities. We want them to know that they're not lazy or stupid as they may have been led to believe."

History is filled with examples of people with learning disabilities who found ways to overcome their handicap, Siegel says.

Poet William Butler Yeats was always at the bottom of his class in writing, spelling and penmanship and didn't learn to read until he was nearly 10. Yet he went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Mystery writer Agatha Christie wrote nearly 100 books, but she couldn't spell and had such terrible handwriting she didn't begin writing until she learned to type.