FEATURE: What it’s like being a Ryerson student with a learning disability

By: Alexis Perikleous and Victoria McMurchy

Linas Kairys sits at a desk in a room of 20 students, ready to write one of his first university exams. The room is quiet. He takes a deep breath and looks down at the sheet in front of him.

His mind goes blank.

This is a recurring nightmare for all students; Spending hours studying countless pages of notes and information, only to forget it all as soon as you sit down to write your exam. But for Kairys, this is a daily reality.

Linas Kairys, a third-year theatre production student has a working memory disorder and has registered for academic accommodations (Photo by Victoria McMurchy).

“I quickly forget things in the moment,” said Kairys, a theatre production student. “If you asked me three questions, I would only be able to remember the third one and by the time I was trying to remember the first one, I would have forgotten the second.”

Kairys has a disorder in his working memory, which means he has trouble remembering information as soon as he receives it. However, if given enough time, he can recall the information.

Knowing his memory problems would present challenges for him in university, Kairys registered with Student Learning Support (SLS) at Ryerson during his first few weeks at school. His academic accommodation allows him to write in the test centre, giving him the extra time he needs to recall information and succeed on his exams.

“I used the extra space and I used the extra time,” he said. “It made me feel calmer and safer and more focused, just waiting for when my memory kicked back in.”

Located on the fourth floor of the Student Learning Centre (SLC), the SLS is home to various student resources. The bright green walls and furniture brighten the space, with light pouring in from the floor-to-ceiling windows. It is a welcoming and friendly environment for students of all abilities to spend time studying or hanging out with friends. Tucked in the back corner of the floor is Amanda Masterson’s office. As the acting manager of AAS, she encourages students with learning disabilities to register with SLS.  

“[Learning disabilities] may prevent some students from fully accessing their education,” Masterson said in an email interview. “Accommodations are designed to address these impacts and allow students to fully participate in their studies and demonstrate their knowledge, skills and abilities.”

How academic accommodation for disabilities works. (Story continues below video)

After registering with the SLS, it’s up to the student to arrange accommodations with their professors that best suit their learning needs. For students who are uncomfortable speaking with their professor about their disability, the SLS can provide assistance.

“AAS also offers training and guidance on how to best communicate their accommodation needs for students who would like to develop this skill,” Masterson said.

Lawrence Barns, the president and CEO of the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario (LDAO), said it’s important for students to advocate for their own needs.

“The biggest issue for university students is really building their self-advocacy skills,” he said, “because the services aren’t going to come and find you. You have to go find the services.”

Barns is a lawyer by trade and father of two boys with learning disabilities. He applied for the position with LDAO to get involved in something that has affected his family.

Founded in 1963, LDAO has 15 chapters across the province. Barns said LDAO mainly works with youth who have learning disabilities, before they enter post-secondary education or the workforce.

“Just getting into higher education with a learning disability, you’re in the minority,” Barns said.

The 2012 Statistics Canada census reported almost 65 per cent of Canadians with learning disabilities aged 15 to 64 had a high school education or less.

Lara Wong, a student who came to Ryerson from Humber College with a diploma in social service work, is beating that statistic. She said her previous success in a post-secondary environment has left her feeling confident about seeking out resources on campus.

“I haven’t explored tutoring yet, but I am registered with accessibility services,” she said. “I’m able to use the test centre, so I get extensions and I’m able to record lectures.”

Wong is diagnosed with dyscalculia, which she describes as “basically dyslexia for math.” She also has a nonverbal learning disability, which is commonly linked with her physical disability, cerebral palsy. People with nonverbal learning disabilities have great verbal skills, but struggle with visual-spatial, motor and social skills.

“Just being registered has been really good to have an advocate in your corner,” she said.

Not all students with learning disabilities choose to use the resources Ryerson offers.

As a Grade 2 student, Gavin Mercier was told he was unable to read – a diagnosis that would drastically change his relationship with school. Mercier was diagnosed with a double learning disability for reading and writing, as well as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This made reading comprehension, writing and paying attention in class difficult.

Gavin Mercier, a first-year journalism student, who has not sought help from the learning centre for his learning disability (Photo by Alexis Perikleous).

“It’s definitely demoralizing for sure. Just hearing that you can’t do something as well as other people, it’s definitely a huge blow to your ego,” he said.

He said his teachers constantly doubted his academic abilities, and school became a source of anxiety – a “big monster” he faced daily as a young boy who just wanted someone to believe in him.

“I was always good at spelling, not actually writing the words but just spelling in my head. So I was good at spelling tests, but the teacher just wouldn’t give me the same test as other kids,” Mercier said.

“It was really difficult at first, just because when you’re a kid not a lot of teachers are going to believe you when you say, ‘I know it says [I have a learning disability] on paper but I can actually do stuff.’ They’re just going to look at the [diagnosis].”

Determined to overcome his disability and disprove those who doubted him, Mercier started reading books and working on his writing. What started as a need to overcome his disability soon turned into a passion. Mercier saw no better way to feed this passion than applying to the Ryerson School of Journalism.

“Eventually I just started reading and putting so much work into overcoming the disability that I just started really liking reading and writing,” he said. “Journalism made the most sense. It was a meaningful profession to me.”

As a first-year journalism student, Mercier knows that journalism will most likely present him with challenges. “[The] program isn’t really what I’m supposed to be tuned for. So there’s a lot of work involved in just staying ahead,” he said.

When he was a high school student, Mercier received accommodations and was able to write his exams alone in the library. Since coming to Ryerson, Mercier has not registered for AAS.

“If it becomes a problem then I definitely will seek accommodations. I don’t want to set myself behind just because I’m stubborn,” he said. “I can only imagine that I’m going to switch back to [having accommodations] pretty soon.”

Daniel Alati, a criminology professor at Ryerson, said he understands that some students like Mercier might not use academic accommodations because of the stigma associated with getting help.

Daniel Alati, a Ryerson criminology professor stands in Jorgenson Hall, just outside his office (Photo by Alexis Perikleous)

“Some students conceptualize [getting help] as weakness, or that there’s something wrong with them, and that’s not the case,” he said.

Alati has taught at Ryerson for the past three years and said, on average, about 10 per cent of the students in his classes have accommodations.

As a professor, Alati realizes all students have individual needs and does his best to work out fair deadlines with his students.

“Everybody is given different skills in this life,” he said. “Tailoring the expectations in a course to suit the educational needs of certain students sets them up for success.”

Like Masterson, Alati encourages all of his students to take advantage of the resources offered by Ryerson and hopes other professors do the same.

“Every instructor should be telling their students that those supports are available,” he said.

Now in his third year, Kairys said the SLS has helped his academic career. Since coming up with his own strategies for remembering things – like tapping his fingers on the table or clenching his fist – he hasn’t been using the resource centre as often.

“But it’s still always great to know that if there ever is a moment where I get stuck or I need that extra help, I can always go there for that support,” he said.

Taking the elevator up to the fourth floor, Kairys continues to visit the bright green space that’s home to the SLS. Sitting amongst his fellow students, he finds comfort in knowing he’s not alone.

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