A ‘glitch’ in reading, education, and politics

Dyslexia is a common disability that can be overcome if caught early. So why did the province balk at clearly including it in new legislation?

Walter Loewen always had trouble reading. Only later did he realize that he may have a common learning disability. Photo by Tyler Olsen

This story was published in three consecutive editions of the Fraser Valley Current newsletter in 2021. The week after publication, one of the series’ subjects wrote that the province appeared to have changed its tune. Social Development Minister Nicholas Simons promised Cathy McMillan that the definition of impairment would be included in the law’s “plain language” on government websites. Simons emailed McMillan shortly after The Current asked Dan Coulter, the Parliamentary Secretary for Accessibility and the MLA for Chilliwack, about why such language was not included in the law. McMillan said she thinks the interview with The Current may have been “the last straw” that got the government to bend. She said the move is a good first step, but that she would still like the Accessible BC Act to specifically mention those with learning and communication disabilities.

Part 1: Learning to deal with a learning disability

For an audio version of this story, click here.

Walter Loewen is a slow reader. Always has been. He would read a sentence. Then re-read it. Others would devour complex books. Loewen would struggle to the end of a basic text. He felt stupid.

Loewen, though, persevered. He got a university degree, then completed his teacher training. But he had to find ways to make up for what he perceived to be his deficiencies. He finished university by taking concentrated classes in the summer, and got through teacher training by “riding the coattails” of his brother. He got a job as a teacher and, decades later, concluded his career teaching gifted students. Loewen would end up spending much of his life in schools.

“I learned ways to cover my inadequacies,” Loewen, now 82, says. It’s a common theme among people with dyslexia (or the many people who, like Loewen, have never been formally diagnosed but who have dyslexic tendencies or related learning disabilities).

Loewen only began to understand his school difficulties after he retired from teaching and embarked on a consulting and tutoring career in Chilliwack. Loewen took part in a seminar on the characteristics of dyslexics and was struck by how the class seemed to be about people just like him. Dyslexia isn’t a disease, but rather a learning disorder—a “glitch,” as Loewen puts it—related to how the brain processes language. There are different types of dyslexia, but most involve processing difficulties that complicate how a person reads letters and turns them into sounds. It has no other effect on intelligence. But the ways it manifests itself can make life, particularly in school, difficult and discouraging.

“I did graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree and I had a successful teaching career, so I don’t think I was stupid, but I always felt inferior. People talked about all the stuff that they read, and I could just read a basic text and that was it.”

Loewen and others say the key to helping those with dyslexia or dyslexic tendencies is early recognition that they may need to learn a different way. The teaching techniques that might help others learn to read and spell may fall flat when applied to someone whose brain is wired a little differently. They might not be able to rhyme sounds or link sounds with letters. Some of these challenges confront those without dyslexia, of course, and can be overcome through perseverance and ongoing teaching. But for those with dyslexia, these challenges can persist because of the different make-up of the brain. And when those challenges aren’t addressed, frustration and emotional distress can be the result.

“When you recognize there’s a bit of a glitch, you need to take a different approach,” Loewen says. “Parents should be aware that what works for 80% of students may not be working for their child.”

Loewen and others say the key is identifying the problem early; even without a formal diagnosis, catering to kids who learn differently by teaching them in different ways will pay dividends decades down the road. But there’s a catch, Loewen and others say: government and an education system that they say dramatically undercounts the number of children with learning disabilities. They say a variety of barriers, including cost and awareness, makes it hard to get diagnosed, and that funding and support is broadly lacking. And many warn that new legislation passed just a month ago could only perpetuate the problem. We’ll explore that story in tomorrow’s newsletter.

The Current asked the province to explain what curriculum or teaching techniques are used within a standard class to help students, including those who have not yet been diagnosed with dyslexia. Read the ministry’s response here.

Part 2: A forgotten disability

For an audio version of this story, click here.

Last month, a letter about a new provincial law did what some said couldn’t be done: united the members of the Chilliwack School Board for a common cause.

The trustees joined a chorus of concern about a new provincial act that will set the stage for how BC’s government assists those who have disabilities. The Accessible BC Act is a fairly narrow piece of legislation. It is not overly complicated and is the first step toward creating new policies and rules related to accessibility standards. But one thing has rankled a coalition of groups: in defining “impairment” (as physical, sensory, mental, intellectual, or cognitive impairment), the act did not specify communication and learning impairments and disabilities—dyslexia being one of the most common. Similar federal legislation includes those disabilities within its definition. BC’s did not.

Government officials insist the definition was crafted with the best of intentions. But parents, educators, and those who may have dyslexia themselves are worried about its implications. Those worries are influenced by what they say is an ongoing lack of support for people who have learning disabilities.

Walter Loewen, Cathy McMillan, a founding board member of advocacy parent group Dyslexia BC, and many others say students can thrive if they are helped early on. But they say that often does not happen in schools and other places where resources are tight. Dyslexia is a decoding problem, not an intellectual disability: people with dyslexia simply process words and letters differently. That requires different approaches when teaching skills like reading. It also can result in frustration and disillusionment with schooling when that help is not received.

Government officials say the definition is intended to be as broad as possible and that anyone with learning disabilities would, of course, be covered. But while the NDP suggests the broadness of the legislation is a feature, a huge group of organizations and individuals say that lack of specificity is precisely the problem when dealing with disabilities that are under-diagnosed and often invisible. The Chilliwack Parent Advisory Committee voiced its concern, and in early June so too did Chilliwack’s school board (after a painful-to-watch 40-minute discussion in which the suggested motion was reworded multiple times). The Abbotsford School Board joined the call a couple weeks later (after a much, much shorter discussion).

In a letter to the government and to school boards around the province, Disability Alliance of BC said the new law “will systemically exclude and discriminate against British Columbians who have communication disabilities as well as those who have learning disabilities.” Advocates worry that both children and adults will continue to find it hard for parents and individuals to get the help and accommodations they are entitled to. That includes both children and adults.

Only a portion of those with learning disabilities have a formal diagnosis. McMillan told The Current that clarity in the legislation is needed to ensure those reading it—including employers and school administrators—can’t argue with the need to accommodate people with learning and reading impairments. That could address challenges as simple as ensuring that someone with a reading disability can take an audio test for a commercial driver’s licence.

“When it comes to somebody trying to actually use the legislation to get their accommodation at school or at work, to the lay person, they might just say, ‘Well, look, your impairment isn’t on here.’”

MLAs from the Green Party and the BC Liberals attempted to add the language to the new law during debate in early June. But the NDP refused to include such language, the amendment was voted down, and the act was adopted. The NDP has promised to include learning disabilities in updates to other legislation, including ones that regulate schools and workplaces. But McMillan says including these disabilities shouldn’t require such a fight.

She fears there is a simple reason for the government’s reluctance to include those with learning disabilities: cost. If all those children who actually have learning disabilities got the help they need, McMillan says it would require increased spending. As it is, she says only a tiny proportion of those with dyslexia are actually diagnosed with a learning disability. It can cost thousands of dollars just to get diagnosed, she said, and parents are often encouraged to enrol their children in expensive private schools, or employ tutors.

She says addressing learning and reading disabilities when children are young is much cheaper than addressing the various and costly societal challenges that can result when kids drop out of school out of pure frustration and are unable to reach their potential.

“It’s much more cost-effective to be dealing with it up front rather than at the back end.”

Part 3: Why not add two words to new disability legislation? We asked a local politician.

Advocacy groups say it’s important to explicitly state that those with disabilities that can be hidden, ignored, or dismissed are also deserving of accessibility measures. They say it’s too difficult to get help for kids with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. So we asked Dan Coulter, the government’s parliamentary secretary for accessibility and the MLA for Chilliwack, why he and his colleagues had been so firm.

Coulter told The Current that the legislation was the first of several steps. The act, he said, only empowers government to start developing accessibility standards that will be laid out in future laws and rules. He said the definition was kept as broad as possible to include as many people as possible. The act’s definition of impairment “includes a physical, sensory, mental, intellectual or cognitive impairment.” We asked Coulter why his government balked at adding 2 more words—learning and communication—to that list, as many have called for.

FVC: “This definition is different from the federal legislation. It’s different from some other provinces. Why not include [learning and communication disabilities]? What’s the harm in including it like those other places have included it?

Coulter: “Well that’s the thing. Nothing in our legislation is an exhaustive list.”

FVC: “Yeah. So why not just do it? Why not just add these two things?”

Coulter: “We just don’t feel like it was necessary. Our social model of disability covers every single disability—

FVC: “Right. But what’s the harm including these 2 little things there? Who does it harm? It sounds like there’s a lot of people who think it harms people by not including, so on the cost benefit analysis, what’s the cost to include in it?”

Coulter: “Well, the legislation has passed the house now. And so it’s gone through first, second and third reading, and the entire house, every single party in the house. Every single MLA in the House voted in favor for this legislation… And now is the time for the real work to start right. The point of the legislation is to remove and prevent barriers, and so I hope people stay involved. I already know there’s keen interest and a lot of interest in people being involved to make sure that this will be the most effective legislation possible. And that’s the intention of this legislation. And that’s what we’ll be doing.”

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