Education is the key that unlocks our success, and I do not believe a person should be denied access to success because of a disability. - Shakira Rouse
Through some unwritten rule it is expected that by eighteen we are to act and behave like an adult. We are to be critical in our thinking, make importance decisions about our education, career, relationships, finances etc. While in other cultures there may be a right of passage that prepares young men and women for adulthood, for me, it was marked by a “walking the plank from high school and being pushed into the deep blue see of life” mentality.
Living and learning with a learning disability
When I was in grade two I was diagnosed with a learning disability (LD). For most of my life I had a vague understanding of what that meant, based on an example my mother told me when I was a child. Before going back to school in the fall one year, my mom explained to me why I would not be returning to French Immersion due to my learning challenges. It went like this: if one week I learned about a dog, and the following week I learned about a cat, in the third week, if I were to have to address the topic of the dog, I could not. It was like I completely forgot what I had learned only two weeks before. My mom explained to me this was a result of a weak working memory. Try explaining that to an eight year old. Like most students I just accepted that I was not great at certain subjects like math and some forms of writing. However, despite being taken out of French Immersion I still embraced one of my strengths: languages.
Making the transition from high school to university was not as easy as some may make it seem. In 2007 I started my post-secondary education at Glendon College, York University’s bilingual campus. Yeah, the little eight year old girl that was removed from French Immersion because of her LD decided to do a double major in French and Spanish. Excited and eager like all the other guppies to start university and embark on a new chapter of my life, I had no idea what challenging waves were coming my way. While most of my academic life my LD had a minimal impact on my marks, it became a huge and evident problem in university.
First year came and went. Although I passed, there were areas where I could have improved. Second year, I began to work harder in an attempt to improve my marks and GPA. Despite how hard I worked it seemed like I was not able to improve my marks. My moment of ‘lying face down in the arena’ happened when a French professor questioned if I was in the right program. French was always the one subject I had confidence in, and this comment shattered my self-assurance. In my third year of university I was exhausted, helpless, and frustrated. I felt trapped within myself and began doubting my own abilities and questioning if I had made the right choice to study French. It did not make sense that the universe would allow me to get so far in life and then say “Shakira, French is not for you.”
Finding support for my learning challenges
One day I was talking to my friend about these concerns. She also has a LD and informed me that I could get help from the university. After three years of studying on my own, this information can as an utter shock to me. Immediately I connected with the right individuals on campus to help me. By my final year of university I was able to receive the support and accommodations I was entitled to and finally graduated in 2011 with a Bachelor’s degree in Hispanic Studies.
I was happy with my accomplishments with my first degree but not satisfied. Two years after graduating, I returned back to school to finish my second degree in French and started a minor in Inclusive Education (Special Education). It was at this time that I was able to put together the missing puzzle pieces of my life. I was finally able to truly understand my learning disability. It came back to the explanation my mother gave to me as a child. I have a weak working memory, which means it takes me longer to recall information previously learned. Math was also a challenge for me because I have weak visual spatial memory too - the part of the brain that is used to understand various math concepts. Having a better understanding of these aspects of my learning disability also helped me to discover and pinpoint solutions to address these learning challenges. I could focus on various mediums like art, apps, and different kinds of technology. By investigating and using these different techniques, I had agency in enhancing my learning, and putting an end to my frustration.
Coming to terms: utilizing my personal relationship with my LD
I realized that most of my difficulties dealing with my LD was due to the fact that I was unaware and uninformed of my rights, and therefore unable to advocate for myself. Many students with special needs are unaware of the accommodations and resources available to them such as: extra time for test or exams, writing finals in private rooms, hiring scribes or note takers, and receiving funding for private tutors, special software programs, and technologies like a laptop. When you do not know, you do not know. Another factor I realized was that because I did not understand my learning disability, I did not know what I needed to help me succeed. When we do not understand the problem, we cannot find the solution.
From that moment I decided no other student should relive my experience and was inspired in 2015 to start my own business called Special Compass. Special Compass is an educational resource centre for students and parents with special needs. Through various programs I educate both parents and students, giving them the necessary tools needed to achieve success academically and personally. Special Compass offers various programs and services: workshops that assist students in making the transition from high school to post-secondary, tutoring, workshops for parents on an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP – ensures a child who has a disability receives specialized instruction and related services), advocating for children with a LD and a mentorship program. Education is the key that unlocks our success, and I do not believe a person should be denied access to success because of a disability.
Life does not always make sense. As Frederick Douglass once said, “If there is no struggle there is no progress”. Making any kind of transition in life is progress. During that transition expect failure and fear. As much as we always want to hear the happy stories in life, our stories of fear and failure have value and influence our success. The wall of fear will always stand before something great that is meant to happen. In order to discover what is on the other side of that wall we must be willing to be vulnerable and fail. I did not always understand my transition and progress but it has helped to define and transform me into the person I am today. I had to fail to discover my purpose and passion in life, which is to help others excel with theirs.
Shakira Rouse is the founder of Special Compass, where she makes a difference in the lives of those with learning disabilities.