I was diagnosed with a learning disability in grade 2. My diagnosis was in reading, writing, memory, math, and attention (all areas you need in school). I am now 33 years old, have completed my High School Diploma, graduated from St. Lawrence College, completed 3 years at Queen’s university, finished my undergraduate degree at Ryerson University through the Disability Studies Program, and recently completed my post-graduate as an Applied Learning Disability Specialist through Cambrian College. So, through my many years I have experienced many different transitions throughout the postsecondary journey.
When I was going through high school, I knew what I wanted to do in a general sense. I wanted to support people with disabilities and help them to be successful in their schooling so they could accomplish their dreams. I was in the last year that high school students could take (OAC, or grade 13) and I took advantage of that as I wanted to take a few extra classes to get my grades up. I was a hard worker throughout high school and was getting average grades. The help I needed was not always there, and oftentimes I received help because the teachers wanted to give me extra time to help me succeed. Otherwise, it was up to me to stay up late studying, and my mom hired tutors to help me through the summers to prepare me for the following year.
And through all of that, I still loved school and was looking forward to starting postsecondary. I couldn’t wait to begin to help others, or at least start the schooling process. But the thought of going to a whole new school and not knowing if the support would be there terrified me. Luckily, my mom was a great advocate and I had a great resource teacher in my final year who helped me prepare for this next step. My mom taught me to be my own advocate, as she said this would be important because she would not be there, and she encouraged me to stand up and ask for help when I did not understand what to do. So, I made my appointment with the accessibility services at St. Lawrence College in the summer before I left for school as I wanted things in place for day 1. I even had quotes and options for my computer and technology that I needed, as I knew exactly how I learnt and I knew what I needed for me to be successful.
I think something that set me apart from other students with disabilities was the fact that I was very prepared. But there is nothing saying others can’t be as well, it just takes a little preparation and researching beforehand and often someone to help push things along, like a parent, teacher, or a friend. Although I had done a lot of preparing, what was new was that I now had to advocate for myself. That was hard sometimes. I decided from the beginning that although I did not have to disclose my disability to all my teachers or professors, I knew that if I explained to them about my disability and how I learn best, they would better be able to support me. Most profs were really open and did give me the support, and some even stated that they would support any student who came forward whether they had a disability or not. Although not all profs were so open, I would still get my accommodations as stated on my letters I handed out, but sometimes there was nothing beyond exactly what was written in my letter.
Both in going to St. Lawrence College and Queen’s University, I learnt so much about myself and how you need to stand up for yourself and your learning. It’s important to always ask questions and ask for help, because they really can’t read your mind and won’t be able to help you otherwise.
My next biggest challenge was the transition to online-based courses, the BA in Disability Studies and my post-graduate at Cambrian in Applied Learning Disabilities. I was not at the school and not even in the same province, so the school supports I once had were not there in person. Although the support of the profs online was there, my accommodations and my technology definitely helped to make the experience better. I know that without my assistive tech, many of the things that I did in school and do now at work would not be possible.
Through my 10+ years of school and transitioning about 4 times, from programs to post graduates to now working, I learnt that being a self-advocate and knowing your rights is really important. Although the supports and accommodations are not always the same, every journey it is about figuring out what your needs are and how to get support, being resilient, and knowing when to ask for help.
I was told in high school many years ago that I would not ever make it to university because of the struggles I had with my learning disability, and I look back now and think, WOW, I accomplished so much. But it was not always easy and there were a lot of times that I wanted to give up, but I kept going back to my goals and going back to the fact that I have the right to my education, regardless of how I learn. Also, I knew that I wanted to support other students who went through the same triumphs and struggles as me, and I hope that I can help them through that journey and show them that yes, you have a learning disability, but that just means you learn differently, that’s all. Having one place that students, parents, etc. can go to get the support is amazing. We all learn differently, so own that! Ask questions and stand up for yourself!
I now work as an Assistive Technologist at the University of New Brunswick, and I‘m in the Canadian Armed Forces as a Reserve Officer who is currently the Commanding Officer at a cadet corp in NB. I also teach figure skating, and my husband and I foster children, in addition to having a beautiful 10-year-old boy.
- Kailha Winter-Smith, College and University Graduate