THE BLOG
09/02/2014 07:00 EDT | Updated 11/02/2014 05:59 EST

There Are Way More B.C. Students With Special Needs Than You Think

There was an article published in the Vancouver Sun, detailing the odyssey of B.C. mother and teacher Lori Drysdale's search for services for her son, who has non verbal learning disabilities. The article was largely accurate, but there is a serious discussion underlying Drysdale's story that needs to be addressed.

B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender has decided that because about 10 per cent of B.C. students were identified as having special needs last year, only 10 per cent of students in B.C. schools have special needs. But in fact, the number is a great deal higher that.

First, waiting lists to get formally identified are very long. In one inner city school I worked at, we accessed about three to five assessments per year. By the end of September, the children on the "urgent" list numbered about 25. As a result, at best, in any given year, one-fifth of students who urgently needed assessment would receive it.

Many students languished on these lists throughout their elementary school careers, and some never received assessment. Assessment is necessary for a child to be "identified" or "designated" and thereby funded. So children who had an urgent need for funding did not even get diagnosed, never mind provided the services they deserved.

Second, because teachers know about this, they realize that only children with the most dire needs will be assessed. There is no point at all in putting a child on the assessment list if his need is "only" severe. He won't receive assessment. The teacher, therefore, will not receive the information about how his brain works and could not tailor instruction to his needs. The parents will not be told what, exactly, is making things hard for their child. And the child himself will often believe that his problem is simply that he is "stupid," a notion regularly reinforced by his peers.

The teachers, of course, will move heaven and earth to help the child anyway. But without funding, without educational assistants and with massive classes, the unidentified child will often fall into the abyss of not really understanding, trying to cope, and becoming increasingly frustrated and angry.

So Lori Drysdale, who as a teacher likely knew about the trajectory our government has chosen for our children with learning disabilities, decided to go the private school route. So did I, with my daughter who has the same diagnosis. Drysdale gave up her house to make that happen. I gave up an extremely good job to make that happen. For Drysdale, it has helped her son, but for my child, it did not. Private school may help some, but it most definitely is not the answer for all, or even most children with learning disabilities.

Fassbender, who is lamentably unfamiliar with the issues in his education portfolio, and woefully uneducated in how to assess the literature on the topic, needs to understand that 10 per cent doesn't begin to touch the students who need special educational intervention.

What is sad is that there are reasonable ways to address these needs, and we've known about many of them for my entire 35 year career as a special educator; but until people like Fassbender decide to ask those who know what they're doing, without a funding agenda, the conversation about genuinely positive educational reform will never happen. So in the meantime, we fight our contract battles to try to assuage the terrible needs that, daily, we see unmet.

The true miracle of learning disabilities is the astonishing number of children who do make it through to become functional citizens. They cope, and some thrive, but the wounds create scars that never disappear.