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Learning disabilities stigma impacts apprentices

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by Kelly Lapointe last update:Oct 3, 2014

In her post-graduate research on the experience of British Columbia apprentices with learning disabilities, Ruth McGillivray, Manager, Quality Assurance, Program Standards, Industry Training Authority in British Columbia, found that learning disabilities are misunderstood, not only by the public, but by educators, administrators and even the people who have them.

McGillivray, Manager, Quality Assurance, Program Standards, Industry Training Authority in British Columbia, likened having a learning disability to having glasses.

“It doesn’t make you less smart,” she told the audience at the recent Canadian Apprenticeship Forum conference in Regina.

“Without my glasses, I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t read, I could go to school, I would be ‘stupid’, I would be a failure, I wouldn’t succeed.”

McGillivray explained that learning disabilities are neurological disorders, not cognitive, and affect how a person stores, understands, retrieves or communicates information. Though people may have different learning disabilities, the accommodations for helping students are usually the same.

For her research, McGillivray interviewed six tradesworkers who had learning disabilities; only two of them were diagnosed before adulthood.

Most said they needed detailed drawings of projects, rather than written instructions. Hands-on learning and being able to try is many of their preferred way to learn since just reading makes no sense, the interviewees indicated. They all wanted blended learning in an online environment.

All of them had a lifelong struggle with their learning disabilities and were confident on the job, but not at school.

McGillivray found a few surprise similarities with these case studies. Most didn’t know what learning disabilities they had, nor the symptoms and accommodations. She found that there is a stigma to learning disabilities and a fear of discovery and they were reluctant to seek support or accommodations.

All of them knew what tools they needed to learn and wanted anonymous access to them. Also, all of them wanted to be interviewed to save others from their experience.

“I was really surprised by the stigma of learning disabilities and how it kept them from asking for help and the fear of being discovered. You can read about it in a line item in a report, but when you’re talking to people and you can feel their dread of this, it’s not small.”

Apprentices experience several barriers to finishing trade certification, said McGillivray. Learning disability diagnosis is an expense and technical training does not meet the minimum duration of 12 weeks for a diagnosis bursary.

McGillivray also identified barriers such as: apprentices must know that they have a learning disability and they have to self-advocate; they must be willing to self-identify; and a lack of instructor education results in stigma.

McGillivray said her research points out that learning disabilities are misunderstood and there is a stigma.

“Apprentices with learning disabilities struggle alone with their technical training and their exams,” she said.

“Without support, apprentices with learning disabilities are definitely at risk of [not] completing certification.”

McGillivray concluded with several recommendations: assume learning disability learners are in every class; have a universal design for learning approach to teaching, learning materials and assessment; provide access to key accommodations without diagnosis or self-identifying; educate instructors; raise awareness in trades to reduce stigma; and provide resources.

last update:Oct 3, 2014

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