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The centre of attention

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By Brennan Doherty

Brendan Fitzgerald didn’t know he had Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) until he was diagnosed for the second time. Before high school, nobody tried to explain why he could listen to verbal instructions and not be able to repeat a word. Or why it took him three times as long to read a page or write a test than anyone else in his class. Lacking any better reasons, he came to a depressingly common first assumption made by many people labelled as ADHD: he was simply an idiot.

“I always found that I struggled so hard in school, and I never knew why, but I just did,” says Fitzgerald, now a first-year radio and television arts school of media student.

Soft-spoken and still, Fitzgerald doesn’t fit the classic ADHD stereotype of the constantly fidgeting, Ritalin-popping, uncontrollable trouble child who can’t hold still, shut up or sit down. His gaze frequently wanders – to the papers strewn across a desk, posters pinned to the walls, voices trailing in from the hallway.

In Grade 3, Fitzgerald’s first time seeing a practitioner had been explained away by his parents as a visit to a “math tutor.” It was so unusual, and so long ago, that he doesn’t remembered the specifics of the testing – hours of drills to test memorization, creativity and reaction to social cues. A sudden school change at the end of the year from École La Source, a French-language public school, to the nearby English private Bay School – where Fitzgerald’s mother had just been hired – made perfect sense to an eight year old. Mom just wanted to keep an eye on him.

But Grade 9 meant Innisdale Secondary School, a public high school in Barrie with a population of 2,000, class sizes over 30 and overloaded counsellors. It was a far cry from the tightly knit community at Bay and Fitzgerald’s marks suffered – dropping from grades in the 80s to having a 64 in math as his highest mark.

It was in a meeting between him, his parents and Innisdale’s head of learning services that he finally learned of his diagnosis from seven years earlier.

“It was a bit of a relief knowing – it’s like, you know, ‘thank God I’m not just dumb.’ I just thought I was stupid for so long,” he says.

While a century of research still hasn’t produced definitive results, modern neurology has found that the brains of people with ADHD are wired differently – with different neural patterns, less emphasis on left-brain (ordered/logical thinking) activity and below-average dopamine levels. The last point is actually quite ironic, as dopamine controls focus and attention, meaning that ADHD brains are in fact under-stimulated.

People with ADHD are often lumped into one classic stereotype – a grossly exaggerated caricature of hyperactive symptoms: an inability to stop one’s constant tapping, shifting, or thoughts. However, many like Fitzgerald are inattentive types. They find themselves “blanking out” during lectures, conversations and readings. Fitzgerald also falls under the impulsive category – he sometimes can’t help interrupting people or taking risks with deadlines when he doesn’t need to. While there is often overlap between hyperactive, inattentive and impulsive types, most people tend to lean towards one type or another.

According to Statistics Canada, about four per cent of adults experience some or all ADHD symptoms. Without calculating factors that would impede a student’s ability to get into university, that would put the number of Ryerson students with ADHD at about 1,360.

While they go by a variety of different names – the Access Centre at Ryerson, Student Accessibility Services at Trent University and Learning Disability Services at York University – accommodation centres assist students with a variety of physical, mental and learning disabilities. Students who have documentation of their disability, signed by a certified doctor, are able to access aids and counsellors to assist them.

But for students with learning disabilities, the process of accessing the accommodations they need – be it extra time on assignments, the use of a laptop for exams or even just a quiet space to work – involves navigating a complex bureaucracy of medical forms, appointment schedules, and online booking programs.

In the case of ADHD, this means a full psychological analysis conducted within the last five years – or longer if the test was conducted after the person’s 18th birthday. If done privately, this testing can cost as much as $2,000, while public wait times can be as long as six months.

After this documentation is submitted to the medical centre, the individual student is responsible for re-submitting it to several other individual offices – the access centre, test centre, counselling centre, math centre, writing centre, etc. – on their own. Access centre policy prevents the release of any documents on a student between offices without the student’s express signature – which is required for every individual transfer.

“I don’t have time to come down here on my day off and follow up,” says Sawyer Buchanan, a first-year retail management student with ADHD. “When you say something’s done, it should be done.” Buchanan balances varsity figure skating with her coursework. And although she has an accommodation that allows her to book extra time for tests, Buchanan says her experience has been less than perfect.

“You go to the access centre, and then you have to do double the amount of work to make sure [you get the accommodation you need],” she says. “I wrote an exam last Thursday. It was supposed to be scheduled for the Friday. I went in, and they told me that they’d rescheduled it for the Thursday. I said ‘No, I have 14 emails from the professor … saying it was on the Friday.'”

Later that night, her professor emailed to say that the test centre had no record of her exam. She’s still following up on what happened.

The greatest issue for Ryerson has been overcrowding of resources. Two years ago, the access centre provided accommodations to more than 1,500 students, yet employed just five front-line staff members.

But the university is taking a few steps to improve accommodations for students with learning disabilities. Several programs such as social work and journalism are exploring a universal design for learning (UDL), meaning that classes are designed to suit multiple types of learners rather than modifying a single plan to bring others up to speed.

“You might have classes where you come in for two hours, the professor has lots of slides [and] they lecture you for those two hours,” says Esther Ignagni, assistant professor at Ryerson’s school of disability studies. “But you can also build in other learning activities into the class so that students aren’t static, that they get to move around the classroom, that there’s lots of different ways to learn … Rather than making students go out somewhere, we bring the services into the classroom.”

With the access centre – renamed Academic Accommodation Support (AAS) – set to move into the Student Learning Centre’s fourth floor on March 16, students will now be able to access both academic accommodation supports (currently located in POD) and the math and writing centres (Library) on the same floor, making the AAS a one-stop shop for students who may share a common disability but have differing needs.

Still, for now, the beauracracy is too much for Fitzgerald.

“I can’t just walk in and get help – I have to book an appointment,” he says. “I don’t know if I’ll need help next week, but I know if I need help now.”

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