How one woman changed her mind

Justin Crann
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Barbara Arrowsmith-Young struggled with learning disabilities for almost 30 years. Then she overcame them.

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young understands the value of reading and the importance of libraries.

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, author of The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, discusses the learning disabilities that obstructed her path to success and the solutions she created to overcome them at the Moose Jaw Public Library as part of the 2014 Saskatchewan Libraries Association conference.

Confronted with the challenge of what she called "crippling" learning disabilities, Arrowsmith-Young fought with her learning disabilities in order to overcome them. But the journey began in reading.

"I had to believe that somewhere, there was a solution to (my learning difficulties) and that one didn't just have to compensate or try to work around those challenges. On this journey of exploration I met some truly remarkable people with remarkable ideas, and I met them on the pages of books," she told a room full of librarians at the 2014 Saskatchewan Library Association conference.

"In fact, it's a book that saved my life."

Arrowsmith-Young was the deliverer of the annual Mary Donaldson Memorial Lecture. She gave her speech at the Moose Jaw Public Library.

The book that saved her life, she told the room, was The Man with a Shattered World by A.R. Luria. It did so because it featured a protagonist who reminded her of herself — and drove her to find solutions to her own disabilities.

But her work would be a tricky preposition, she said, because "no two brains are the same."

When she began, she couldn't understand relationships between distinct items or concepts. 

As a result, Arrowsmith-Young couldn't grasp basic math, tell time, or follow conversations or rules, she said.

She likened the experience to trying to see through cotton candy or a thick fog.

Then, after reading Luria's book and additional research from Mark Rosenzweig on the concept of neuroplasticity, she devised exercises to force her brain to understand the relationship between the hands on a clock by stimulating the parts of her brain that weren't functioning correctly. 

With the help of a friend, Arrowsmith-Young eventually mastered clocks with two hands — and started to challenge herself further, introducing more elements.

"Then came the defining moment of my life," she said. "I remember, in June 1978, excitedly pulling philosophy books from a shelf. I would open one book, read a page and immediately understand what I was reading. Then I pulled another book from a shelf and repeated, until I was surrounded by hundreds of books."

Since that day, Arrowsmith-Young said, she has been taking the processes that worked for her to help others overcome their own learning disabilities.

She said she has helped Olympic skiers, motorcyclists and others overcome their cognitive disabilities, and that her ideal goal would be to see her program incorporated into grade school curriculums so that no child will have to struggle with a learning disability the way she did.

"I'm passionate about this work and its ability to change and improve lives. … My daily prayer is that this work, grounded in compassion, with its integrity uncompromised goes out into the world with ease and grace," said Arrowsmith-Young.

You can follow Justin Crann on Twitter.


Organizations: Saskatchewan Library Association, Moose Jaw Public Library, The Man

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