Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Learning difficulties in adults.

This is a re-write of a post from 2010.

I often think about all the inspiring, creative, intelligent and above all courageous people I've had the privilege of working with over the years.

There were the street kids, with drug and alcohol issues, the kids and adults with learning difficulties, the kids (now men and women with their own children) who'd been expelled from school the instant schools could get rid of them, and who were returning to study, absolutely terrified of suffering in the system again, the mums returning to study after being at home for years and feeling they'd lost their inner being - didn't know who they were any more, the young teenage mums unsure about how they'd be accepted.  Successful men who felt like failures.

I'm going to share the story about my involvement with Ricky, who has given me permission to use his real name. I wish I had a 'before' and 'after' picture of him to share. You'll see why soon.

Ricky consulted me in my role as study skills teacher at a post secondary college, located in the city of Dandenong which has a mix of over 150 different nationalities, many of them refugees proudly wearing their traditional dress around campus. He'd been advised to seek help as he was struggling hopelessly with the written aspects of the course he'd hesitantly enrolled in to improve his job prospects. 

Facing his fears
I'm not a particularly threatening looking person, I'm short and have been described as approachable, warm and "motherly". But Ricky was terrified. Terrified of me, terrified of the situation he'd got himself into, terrified I'd laugh at him and his difficulties. Terrified of being in such a foreign environment - in a library in an educational facility. But he came along anyway. Courage? You bet!

I've never seen anyone shaking with fear before, but shake Ricky did. It was clearly visible from a distance. I'm sure if he'd been a bony kind of person I'd have heard them clattering.

Why was Ricky in such a state? Here was a mature man, lovingly married, deeply involved in his church, steadily employed, kind and compassionate. Over the few months we worked together he shared some of his story.

He was "a failure", "hopeless", "useless", "a loser". He'd been told from a very young age that he'd never make anything of himself. These words were used on a little kid by both his parents and teachers.

Who says "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me?" Wrong, wrong, wrong. Cruel words, vicious words, undermining words, can affect people for life, can suck hope from them for ever. Words are powerful, and need to be used with respect for the power they have.

"When did you get lost?"
I asked him when he'd begun losing his way at school. It's a question I often ask, and regularly the answer is grade one or two.

"Grade one" was Ricky's answer.

Can you imagine what that's like? Not understanding what's going on in class, seeing your mates doing things you can't, being bewildered, confused, perplexed, week after week, month after month, year after seemingly endless year. Constantly feeling stupid and ashamed when you find the courage to ask, yet again, if the teacher could please repeat an instruction or explanation. Heaven help the child with an irritable, impatient teacher - they naturally give up asking for help. No wonder these kids feel like failures. 

So there I was with Ricky in that first session. His first 'confession' - "I've never been in a library" (apart from walking through one to meet with me). "Easy peasy" I say, "let's discover this one now!" And so it went from there, exploring, discovering, celebrating. It was exciting!

And as happens when working with an enthusiastic student, the learning went both ways. I was humbled by his tenacity, in awe of his dedication to learning, and grateful that we'd been assigned to each other. In short, I was privileged to have met and worked with such a student.

Oh, and you may ask: if Ricky was such a good student, why hadn't he managed at school?

Learning difficulties
Ricky had an undiagnosed learning difficulty. He has an unusual hearing loss, he's not deaf as such, but hears sounds differently (auditory processing disorder or APD). In addition, he is dyslexic. He wasn't (and isn't) dumb. He just couldn't follow what was happening in class the same way as other kids - he needed a different teaching style.

And the before and after picture? From a quivering mess on that first meeting to our final session; confident, assured, walking tall, and proud of his ability to present a report for his course and workplace.

Ricky was a man with courage to face his worst fears and overcome them. There are many other Ricky's out there, men and women whose lives can be turned around, who feel like failures and discover they aren't. The discovery that they can learn and be productive members of society affects their immediate families and can change the course of their family history. The debilitating and costly affects of stress and depression can be offset as these students realise their worth.  Our communities benefit, as does our society as a whole. It's a small investment with a massive payoff.

This is one of the outstanding programmes which I'm told will be severely curtailed due to the vicious funding cuts to the TAFE sector by the Victorian Baillieu government. For less than $2000 (the approximate cost of my sessional work with Ricky) a student who had low self esteem, had no idea how to write a report and little possibility of advancing in his workplace was transformed to a confident, able and desirable employee. It's not that I was brilliant, I'm not.

It's simply taking time and working from where the student is and translating knowledge into a form that they understand. It's being a mediator, a gate opener. It's being caring, respectful and trusting in their ability to learn.

People who are at the bottom of the ladder, who have challenges that often simply require one on one assistance for a few hours a week for a couple of months to achieve remarkable success, are again relegated to the scrap heap in the name of cost cutting and efficiency.

The doors are firmly closing on many people, and education seems to be increasingly only for those with the understanding of how to access it, and the financial ability to afford the steeply rising fees.

This destruction is being carefully packaged and slickly presented in the name of progress. And the people of Victoria are meant to go along with the pretence that the removal of courses and services is an improvement.

Are there adults in your life with leaning difficulties? How do they manage? Were they supported adequately at school, at work?



Tundiel said...

Excellent and informative, not to mention, inspirational post. I hate how kids with learning difficulties get left behind and don't have the opportunity to achieve their full potential, just because they need to be taught in a non-traditional way. Grr.

sue said...

Tara thankyou. This is an issue that I'm passionate about. I've worked with so many men in particular who have suffered a lifetime of low self-esteem because they've been categorised as lazy or inattentive at school. I firmly believe learning difficulties should be part of EVERY teacher training course.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Sue .. I agree - so well put. I do know a couple of carers who struggle - they're different .. the boy wants to learn and improve and understanding that realises he has to graft and put himself out there to achieve. The girl on the other hand says it's all too difficult and doesn't want to learn ...

Well done on helping Ricky through and out the other side of that enormous challenge in his life ..

Delighted to read the post - Hilary

sue said...

Hilary, I'll never underestimate the amount of courage it takes to face learning difficulties. For many people, it's easier to pre-emptively fail and save face that to have been seen to try, and then fail. As a society, we're cruelly dismissive of those who can't read and too many people believe they're unable to learn due to early school experience.
I was honoured to help Ricky, he was an inspiring man.

Have a good week Hilary. cheers Sue