Levelling the playing field

f2, Staff profiles — By on October 12, 2017 3:11 pm

Julianne Evans reports.

“People are not what you think, they’re what they think,” says Jackie Ede, with one of her wry smiles. She smiles, and laughs, a lot.

It’s a great line, one of many produced in our rapid-fire conversation about learning, level playing fields, students who don’t fit the mainstream model and how you make life at University as fair for them as possible.

Jackie has the title of ‘Learning Disabilities Adviser’ and currently lives under the umbrella of Libraries and Learning Services, Te Tumu Herenga, after having had various homes in the past.

She rather wonderfully described what her job involves in a recent UniNews staff profile:

“I question, listen, respond, assess, evaluate, recommend, review, motivate, suggest, nudge, encourage, laugh (a lot), redirect, reframe, reflect and sometimes pull my hair out.”

The very existence of a person (or in this case, a team of people) whose job involves helping students living with what some refer to as ‘invisible disabilities’ like dyslexia, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) succeed at University can be considered a triumph for inclusivity and advancement in how educators’ think, says Jackie.

Acceptance that people learn in diverse and unique ways has been a long time coming. While the UK identified dyslexia as a real condition around 25 years ago, it wasn’t until 2007 that the New Zealand government acknowledged that dyslexia existed as a legitimate disability.

Prior to this, she says children with these conditions largely went undiagnosed and unsupported, often leaving them to fail at school with no likelihood of ever achieving their astonishing academic potential.

“Recognising dyslexia was a gamebreaker” says Jackie. “Up to that point, people often didn’t succeed in school if they were ‘neuro-diverse’, they simply didn’t survive. But now in 2017 we’re starting to see kids who were diagnosed with a learning challenge ten years ago and have had the support ever since, which is great.”

Support for students with invisible disabilities at this university is slowly gaining momentum. Two University of Auckland educators with psychology backgrounds, Emmanuel Manalo and Glenis Wong-Toi, were the first people to start assessing and helping these students, as distinct from those with physical disabilities or mental health conditions, who are supported by Student Health.

Jackie joined them on contract in 2004 and over time they grew into the ‘Learning Disabilities Programme’. Fast forward to 2017 and there are now three learning disabilities advisers working alongside around 300 students each year.

So if you’re a student who would like help, how do you go about it? After registering at Student Disability Services, students make their way to Jackie’s office on level 3 of the Kate Edger Building to be screened and tested for a range of conditions.

“The first time I see a student I say, ‘Congratulations, you made it. If you’ve got this far, you have a reasonable chance of success because here, you get to work to your strengths’.”

Sometimes she’s the first to pick up a problem that might have existed for years. When this happens students are often surprised – and very relieved – to discover that there’s a reason behind why they think like they do and, secondly, that it’s okay to think that way. And unsurprisingly, a difficulty in one area can have side effects in others.

“We often deal with factors of comorbidity, and we have to ask which is the primary impairment. Someone might start out by thinking they have a handwriting disability for example; however testing then reveals they have ADHD. Or someone with ADHD might also have depression; as a student adviser, you have to deconstruct what’s going on. “It’s not always easy and we don’t always get it right but an educated shot is better than nothing.”

Then she makes a cunning plan for their future academic success, which involves understanding their capabilities and tapping into their potential, as well as mapping out obstacles or barriers to learning.

She says all sorts of things, some of them quite minor, can be adjusted to make a difference: where they sit in a room, who they sit with, the brightness of the lights, the level of noise, the way assignments are given and testing is done. In some cases, it’s a matter of thinking outside the square: “That’s where the magic happens.”

imagine it must be a fine balancing act, bearing in mind how stretched lecturers usually are?

“Academic staff are generally happy to help once they understand what is going on for a student. From time to time, I’m probably seen as a troublemaker.

My own kids have dyslexia, so I can be very tenacious when things start to look ‘unfair’. Luckily we have some really robust processes here for students with disabilities so this doesn’t happen often.” Fortunately for these students, there has also been a change in teaching techniques to favour a more studentcentred teaching and learning approach across the board, says Jackie.

For example, the Physics department has recently adopted a studio style environment for some of their courses, where students work in multi-ability groups of three alongside lecturers and tutors.

“The shift from passive to active learning has worked really well for our students. To quote a student; ‘This is how physics should be’.”

Debates are still raging about the benefits of a label; is the possible stigma and stereotyping that comes with it worth the support a diagnosis brings?

“On balance I think it’s better to own the label,” says Jackie. “The more people we know personally who have these issues, the more open we become to the concept of difference. Let’s face it, we all fall somewhere on a continuum of ability; I’m not great at baking cakes but I can make a mean curry. Similarly, a student may not be a fast writer but their ideas may be astounding. Every student presents with a unique set of strengths and weaknesses so I think it’s better to consider the individual first, then the label.”

The widespread assumption that digital learning is the way forward for neuro-diverse students needs to be challenged, Jackie believes. “Some students don’t want to take that route. They can get swamped by social media, emails, information coming at them from all sides and suffer overload. Online quizzes are another good example, some students simply say, ‘That quiz doesn’t work with how I learn’. Agile thinking is then required on our behalf to figure out the workarounds.” She says a learning discrepancy can impact more in some courses and environments than others.

“In medical school for example, it’s important to have good working memory because you have a lot to learn. One student might need to look at something three times to remember it, whereas someone with a weaker working memory might need to look at it seven times. In a test-heavy environment, this can become an insurmountable hurdle.” Some of Jackie’s students are very literal thinkers so their take on university processes can be both surprising and understandable.

“Like the student who thought the expression ‘office hours’ meant you could regularly spend an hour meeting with the lecturer/tutor in their office, as opposed to a time between which someone will be available in their office to speak with any number of students. Simply, sometimes the easy stuff is harder than the difficult stuff for our students.”

And predictably, life is not all bouquets and gratitude in the learning adviser’s world.

“A comment I hear regularly is: ‘But how are these students going to get on in the real world if they don’t have people like you to help them and advocate for them?’”

And her response?

“I throw the question back at them. University is not the real world; when in the real world are they going to have to do tests and exams under that level of pressure? When will they have to attend lectures and complete assignments?” In fact, says Jackie, in the ‘real world’ a learning impairment more often than not transforms into a gift.

“The world is a better place because we don’t all think the same. Watch this space. My students are the future gamechangers. Researchers, writers, poets,

scientists, doctors, historians and makers; they’re busy making a difference and not caring about being different.”

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