SEEKING HELP PRIVATELY
Over the last couple of decades, private psychologists have begun to offer assessments and other services to take up the slack from an overloaded and underfunded public school system. But doing the testing privately can be expensive.
"Thankfully the learning co-ordinator from the Paul Menton Centre was able to help me get a grant so I wasn't faced with a huge expense."
Derek Rhodenizer, vice-principal at Heritage Academy of Learning Excellence in Ottawa, said Pitman's story isn't unheard of. Heritage is a private school aimed at helping students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities.
"A psycho-educational assessment, even if a student is able to receive one in the public system won't recognize dyslexia," he said, adding the waits for testing are long.
In Ontario, the Niagara Catholic School Board is one of only a handful that recognizes the term.
"There are lots of strains of dyslexia, it can be found in neurological brain scans," he said, adding the scientific proof should afford the condition its own diagnosis.
Dr. Tim Hogan, head psychologist at the Ottawa-Carleton District School said the term isn't used because it isn't recognized in the diagnostic manual available to psychologists.
"We use a more broad-based term like language-learning disabilities," he said.
According to the Canadian Dyslexia Association, it's a condition that relies more heavily on the right brain, preventing the person from learning to read in the conventional way, for example, using word memory.
Rhodenizer said because the schools don't recognize the condition, kids get streamed into special education classes that don't help them learn to read.
He said only specific methods - provided by Heritage and another private school called the Mindware Academy - are useful in teaching dyslexics to learn to read.
An American study by the National Institute for Mental Health discovered that 80 to 90 per cent of all learning disabilities are forms of dyslexia. It also found that 95 per cent of those cases can be fixed if intervention happens at kindergarten. "We use a mix of teaching methods and assistive technology here at Heritage," Rhodenizer said.
In Pitman's case, she found having a laptop and a note taker in her classes helped her get through university. "It leveled the playing field," she said.
Although after her first 100-question test on a Scantron sheet in her first-year psychology class, she decided to switch majors.
"I found those tests really hard," she said, describing Scantron as a nightmare. "So I switched to Sociology with a minor in philosophy." Having a laptop meant that she didn't have to worry about her writing ability when essay answers were recorded.
"Most dyslexics are very creative," Rhodenizer said. "With the right tools, they can soar."
Heritage uses the Simultaneous Multisensory Teaching (SMT) method. Mindware Academy uses the Orton-Gillingham method. Both are multi-sensory methods that use kinesthetic and phonics based rules. "The sad thing is, every student could learn to read with the SMT method," Rhodenizer said. "But dyslexics can't learn with the method used by the public school system."
Mike Lance, who teaches the SMT method at Heritage, said they use cursive writing instead of block printing.
"Larger muscle memory is easier to remember than fine muscle memory," Lance said.
Lance demonstrated the difference between using larger muscles (like the biceps) to learn to write and finer muscles like the fingertips.
Lance said he works with each student for 45 minute blocks each day, adding he helps to build back the self esteem often shattered by years of not "getting it" in the public school system.
'GETTING IT' "It's really great to see their faces when they finally get it," Lance said.
Jenna Rowney, who also teaches at Heritage, said she came to the school out of teachers college and was sold on experiential learning right away.
It's not uncommon for Rowney to teach her class in the schoolyard on a nice day. When she taught students about eco-zones several used Play-Doh. When kids aren't in class they can work on their ju-jitsu in the gym.
"It's all about keeping them active so they can focus their energy," Rhodenizer said.
Pitman agrees with the need to move.
"I don't really remember doing homework in school, I just remember sports and my friends," she said. "In class I kind of went through the motions."
Liette Phillipe said sending her son to Mindware Academy was the best decision she could have made.
After the first four years in the public school system he was reading at a Grade 1 level and couldn't write.
Thanks to the specialized teaching methods that help to deal with difference in learning, by the end of Grade 8, he had developed the coping methods he needed to start high school in the public school system.
"I'm forever grateful to Mindware Academy -they saved my son," Phillipe said.
Pitman said if she had been identified earlier, she would have felt more at home in the classroom.
"There were a lot of years where I felt I wasn't as smart as everyone else," she said. "It took me a while to learn that all I needed was a level playing field."
But for some, private school isn't an option.
Annual tuition at Heritage - which includes the SMT program - is $15,000. Mindware charges $14,250.
Pitman and her sister were raised by a single father. Annual tuition would have likely been out of reach.
Her father's sports treatment for ADD helped to reduce and focus her energy, but Pitman said it wasn't until her second year of university that she even considered medication.
Even now when she's at work, Pitman said she has to remind herself it's OK to ask for the accommodations she needs.
"I just tested for a promotion and I had to ask to do the testing alone," she said. "And if I have a new boss I am always wondering when I should tell them."
Cheryl Ward, who started running Heritage Academy after her mother retired in 2006, said the school system can wear down a child's confi-dence and parental resolve.
"My brother was diagnosed in Grade 3 and they told my mother the best she could hope for was that he would trade baseball cards for a living."
He is now pursuing a doctorate degree at the University of Ottawa. "My mother got frustrated and struck out on her own," Ward said. "But that took a lot of courage."
Ward was diagnosed in Grade 4. She described the extra work she had to do just to complete the same tasks as her peers.
"I had to read everything several times to understand it properly," she said.
In Ottawa, the Learning Disabilities Association of Ottawa-Carleton offers supports for parents of children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. For more information, visit www.ldaottawa.com. There is also the Dyslexia Centre, www.dyslexiacentre.ca, in Aylmer, Que that helps to raise awareness and provide support for testing.
But parents have to be prepared to become advocates, Ward said.
"One of the biggest lessons is you have to fight for what you want," Ward said.