By Joe Culp
It was October 14, 1980 when I started attending the Sagonaska Demonstration School in Belleville, Ontario.
I was only 7 years-old and was diagnosed with a severe learning disability. My education in Parry Sound wasn't going too well for me and it felt like I had a dunce cap slapped on my head – my teachers couldn't cope with what my trouble was.
My parents sought help for me at the Sick Kids speech department in Toronto, who tested me and put me through so many rigorous tests. Wires were put to my head, I underwent psychiatric assessments and that's when they found out what my problem was.
The doctors told my parents the only help for me was at a school in Belleville if they would take me, and a few months after the doctors made the suggestion, they looked into Sagonaska.
In a few weeks, they received the call to bring me down to be tested. Principal and instructor Bill McMaster tested me throughout the morning and sure enough, it was revealed I had a learning disability. It was a relief to finally know.
In August of 1980, we got the call and I was told I would start school there in October.
I was officially enrolled to Sagonaska and this meant a fresh start for me, as I didn't have my family with me and was a residential student there for about a year.
It was hard to accept the fact that I had to be left behind there with counsellors and the other kids who attended there, but I knew my parents wanted what was best for me.
On my first day, it was all about getting acquainted and learning what the rules and the schedules were and learning what challenges I was going to face. With new rules and new routines, it meant learning any way I had to.
My first year teacher Sandra Kennerley always said to me, “Oh come on now Joe, there's no such word as can't."
This is what I use to reach out to other kids struggling through the same thing I did. And I knew what Sandra meant when she said that, “You can't learn unless you try.”
My teacher Starr Buller would teach me auditory memory material which meant the use of audio tapes of instructors, who we had to listen to and circle off the pictures.
My teacher Mary Margaret Graham would teach me how to write off words without copying it off the board by pulling the screen down and having us memorize it.
She even discovered I had a hidden talent and wasn't going to let that go down the drain, so she had me lead a cast in a Christmas pageant with the Sir James Whitney for the Deaf.
Despite some negativity from my family, I knew I had to show them there's no such word as can't. Even my teacher’s husband, Ken Graham told me, “Don't ever say there's nothing you can't do, you can do it.”
Then in June of 1985, my timing at Sagonaska had come to an end and I was admitted back to regular school and regular classes.
I graduated public school two years after that in 1987 and went onto high school. That's where I became an honours student and showed my brothers who had said they'd get higher marks than I would, that it wasn't so.
I graduated high school in 1992 and today I have become an advocate to reach out to those struggling like I did.
I am a devoted giver to the community, helping others, working with kids and helping the poor.
I am also an amateur photographer, but most would say it looks like professional work, having a website of my own and having had pictures featured on The Weather Network and cable channels.
One of my Youtube footages of my hometown in Parry Sound even inspired a band to write a song and they borrowed my work to make their video.
You see, there really is no such word as can't and that's exactly what I learned in life at Sagonaska – all courtesy of the teachers who taught me there and never gave up on me.
That is why I am passing on that quote to those who are struggling like I am. I know deep in my heart that those like myself who have experienced a severe learning disability and went to Sagonaska or other demonstration schools, that they got us where we are today.
Now I am helping in the fight to keep Sagonaska and other demonstration schools open for years to come, so other children can use the same quote I am using today to encourage others that there's no such word as can't. I have the teachers and support staff to thank for that there.
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