Immigrating with a learning disability

Immigrating with a learning disability


Overcoming the challenges and stigma

When teachers in his native Bangladesh suggested that eight-year-old Azan (name changed for privacy) would be better off at home or sent to an “institution,” his parents despaired. Diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Azan could be disruptive in class, often even getting physical with his classmates at the end of a long school day.

His parents, Raina and Karim (names also changed), knew this day was coming since there’s not much awareness, let alone resources, to assist a child in school with a developmental disability in their home country. “Learning was a distant dream; we knew that he would never be accepted by his teachers and the society we lived in, which is, in general, considered ‘normal.’ Stigma related to disability is a real thing,” Karim says.

Even after immigrating to Canada, the family, like many families who have a child with an identified disability, keeps the knowledge of their son’s diagnosis to a limited few — namely, his school, close family members and peers he interacts with on a regular basis. “We keep it on a need-to-know basis. It’s our circle of trust,” Karim says.

Luckily for them, they did not face any problems getting their residency approved despite mentioning Azan’s diagnosis in their application form. But, generally, families who had a member with a disability could be denied residency under the “medical inadmissibility” clause in Canada’s immigration laws. This allowed the government to deny residency to families who could place “excessive demand” on Canada’s publicly funded health system and social service programs, despite the fact their health condition or disability was one readily accommodated in Canadian society. That changed in April of this year when the government amended the policy to bring it in line with current views on the inclusion of persons with disabilities.

That’s good news for families with learning disabilities who want to immigrate to Canada. But the reality is they still face challenges once in Canada, from isolation to cultural stigma to accessing support.

The challenges of a learning disability

“Newcomers with learning disabilities are already socially isolated [and] their learning disabilities impact friendships, school/work, self-esteem and daily life,” says Valerie Martin, executive director of Learning Disabilities Association – Toronto District (LDATD).

Other challenges newcomers face include a lack of awareness and information about learning disabilities, and how to find support services, all while dealing with general settlement issues as well.

“There is the cultural stigma around learning disabilities, which also prevents newcomers from seeking support and help. Many cultures do not screen or have an appropriate context for learning disabilities, and newcomers are typically unaware of services and supports [in Canada] that can assist their families within the education system and in the community,” adds Martin. “There are also not enough resources that are accessible in the language they speak.”

The Lees who immigrated from China in 2013 found relief with LDATD’s help and have a son with ADHD who is now thriving in the school system in Toronto. “We did not disclose our child’s condition either back home in China, or to the immigration authorities during the application process,” says Michelle Lee (name changed for privacy), adding that his learning disability wasn’t totally apparent until he started school in Canada. “The school environment and the academic challenges he faced really brought the symptoms of ADHD to the forefront.”

Finding support if you child has a learning disability

When you realize your child needs support, accessing resources and support is the obvious next step.

The Learning Disabilities Association (LDA), which has provincial associations across Canada and local chapters like the LDATD in Toronto, is a good place to start. From navigating special supports at school for children, to helping adults with learning disabilities with job help, LDA chapters can point you to a variety of services available to help new immigrants with learning disabilities.

“When we first came here, it was all a blur,” says Lee. “We felt a bit lost in the new environment. Later, we found welcoming staff in the settlement department at LDATD. They gave us free information, consultation, and group and individual services to our family, and my child became an achiever at school as per his teacher’s assessment, which is amazing to us.”

List of resources

Learning Disabilities Association of Canada
The national branch of the Learning Disabilities Association is LDA Canada (LDAC). Their website is fully bilingual and there are province-wide local chapters. It’s a great place to start across Canada.


Council for Exceptional Children Ontario
A group that promotes educational outcomes for individuals with special needs.


[email protected]
New LDAO website with free resources for parents, students and families dealing with LDs

Learning Disabilities Association of British Columbia

The association provides information and resources to ensure the full participation of children, youth and adults with LDs in today’s society.

Inclusive Education Resources
Provides opportunities to children with intellectual disabilities.


Easter Seals, Newfoundland and Labrador
A list of collected resources that families living with disabilities might find useful.


Complex Needs Initiative, Alberta

A program conducted by  Alberta Health Services, in partnership with the Government of Alberta, Disability Services – Persons with Developmental Disabilities (PDD), working together to help adults with an intellectual/developmental disability and mental health concern/illness plus complex service needs receive the care they need through a coordinated and integrated support system.


LDAY Centre of Learning, Yukon

A non-profit organization based in Whitehorse dedicated to increasing awareness of learning differences, and supporting children, youth and adults with learning disabilities.



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