This article was written for the PCMH series in the Barrie Examiner.
This summer I took part in a unique workshop put on by the Parents for Children’s Mental Health. Participants were forced into uncomfortable conditions, then ordered to write answers. A normally simple task became impossible, because our seats were awkwardly-placed or uncomfortable, our pencils were sticky and slimy, there was loud static noise being played, the “teacher” was speaking quickly and critically, etc. The intent was to simulate the kinds of challenges people face at school or work when they have a mental illness or learning disability.
The good news was that our disability was temporary, the discomfort brief. And since it was just an exercise, not a real job or class, we had the option to wait it out, knowing there would be no repercussions. But earlier this year I experienced a similar situation which was not so brief, and could not be escaped at will.
Back in March, just before leaving on a family vacation, an ear infection became a ruptured ear drum. My left ear was in excruciating pain and I could not hear from it; worse, the roaring sound made it hard to hear from my other ear. I couldn’t see a family doctor before we left, so I didn’t know what to expect, how long it might last, or what problems it might cause.
It was really bad for a few days, and took weeks to heal. During that time I experienced the challenges of an invisible disability, just like we experienced in the exercise. Often I could not understand people, especially if they had an accent. I might not even know they were talking to me, unless I was looking at them. My “phone ear” was blown, so taking notes on the phone became harder. Any background noise was amplified, making it hard to hear with my good ear. I couldn’t tell if I was speaking too quietly or too loudly.
The worst was that no-one could see the problem. They would not realize I hadn’t heard, or didn’t understand what they were saying. Simple tasks like ordering food or getting directions became fraught with peril, as a critical point was miscommunicated. I would come across as rude or inattentive, and not even know I was offending someone.
This experience deeply affected me, and repeating those struggles at the PCMH workshop really put it into focus. For people with an illness or disability affecting their perception, concentration, or communication, the standard classroom (or office) situation won’t work. What is normal and easy for us is for them a strain at best, an insurmountable challenge at worst.
While our classroom and work situations are designed to satisfy the average person’s needs, many people are outside this “average”. If the setup does not work for them, they will probably get stressed, frustrated, and upset, and those feelings will influence their reactions. Students with classroom problems may anger and misbehave, or detach and ignore their lessons. Then we blame them for it, without understanding that it’s not of their choice. Before condemning someone as “stupid”, “disobedient”, or a “troublemaker”, we really need to understand what is going on. It may be a normal human reaction to an intolerable situation.
Understanding different needs and learning styles is critical for a successful education system. Teachers can do this, but only if we give them the space. When you have too many students, you can’t give each the time it takes to find their right path. And when frustration leads to misbehaviour, that takes away even more time, in a vicious circle. When students with behavioural issues are dumped with those who have an identified learning disability, problems only worsen for everyone.
An education system for all our children must be able to know each of them, to find their special needs, and provide suitable systems or routines. It must be tolerant when things go wrong, understanding that most of us really want success but face obstacles or feelings that can get in our way. Whenever I see a situation of miscommunication or dispute, I recall my temporary invisible disability and remember how problems arose through no-one’s fault. We must move past blame to understanding and solutions.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.