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York profiles a United Way Greater Toronto/Bhayana Family Foundation 2019 Award Recipient Renee Flannery

Richmond Hill woman fights stigma, pain of learning disabilities

Renee Flannery knew something was not right with her son, Michel. 

Learning to walk and ride a bicycle took him a long time. 

In nursery school, learning the days of the week and colours was difficult for him.RELATED CONTENT

So, Flannery got Michel tested for a learning disability at age nine.

He was diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). The testing also found that he was anxious and hard of hearing.

To make matters worse, Michel’s classmates ended up teasing him so much (in part because of his learning disability), that he developed school-related phobias and Flannery had to physically force him to go to school.

She also had her younger son Joel tested for a learning disability at age eight. He turned out to be gifted with a learning disability. 

Flannery’s mission to help her sons had its share of obstacles. There were times when she tried to advocate for her children at their school and she felt belittled by a principal or teacher. It was also obviously difficult watching her children struggle.

So, Flannery turned to The Learning Disabilities Association in Newmarket-Aurora for help. She ended up volunteering for the association. 

Getting help is essential, she said.

“You have to know what to do to protect your child.”

She worked with the association in Newmarket-Aurora for 10 years before she moved to The Learning Disabilities Association of York Region. 

Today, she is a facilitator for the association’s parent support group and for its parenting course. Flannery supports programs, provides resources, organizes seminars and does outreach. Her work relates to learning disabilities, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and attention deficit disorder.

Flannery has been recognized for her work and for the difference she has made. She is the recipient of a 2019 Bhayana Family Foundation Award which recognizes extraordinary contributions made by United Way of Greater Toronto-supported agencies.

Flannery was nominated by two co-workers.

“She has dedication, passion for what she does,” said Helga Sirola, Executive Director of the Learning Disabilities Association of York Region.

Recently, Flannery came to Sirola excited because one of her clients invited her to his college graduation. 

“He said: ‘I don’t want to graduate without her (Flannery) being there’,” Sirola said.

When he first came to Flannery, this man was “floating” – unemployed and not attending school.

She worked with him to get him to go back to school as part of the association’s Job-Fit program. 

“It’s not just a job for her. You can see the excitement in her face,” Sirola said. 

Flannery also provides her office with unofficial therapy dog visits from time to time. Her toy poodle Bones is a rescue dog from Texas. She makes sure to bring the dog into the office a few times before Christmas when students get stressed out about exams.

“Even people that don’t like dogs like her,” she said in her Richmond Hill office. 

Bones also provides her with much-needed company when she is suffering at home from the pain and discomfort from a Crohn’s disease attack in the middle of the night and she doesn’t want to disturb one of her sons or her husband. Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Flannery has also suffered in a way that gives her a unique ability to relate to her clients. 

Flannery got tested for learning disabilities at age 45 and found out for the first time that she has a learning disability too.

She always thought her struggles in school were related to the fact that English wasn’t her first language – it was French. She arrived in Canada in January, 1959 from Paris, France.

She remembers being shoved into an all-English class with no French. 

Growing up, she was told she was lazy and that if she tried harder, she wouldn’t make mistakes. 

“I believed I was stupid.” 

Even at age 45, she found it helpful to know about her learning disability.

“When you know what it is, it takes away the embarrassment,” Flannery said.

She went back to school at age 49 and was glad to know which accommodations she needed. She brought with a friend who was her note taker. 

She pursued her adult education and staff training certificate at Seneca College and graduated with honours. 

Flannery often tells clients about her learning disability.

“She understands what they are going through,” Sirola said.

Flannery explains one of her motivations for working so hard at the Learning Disabilities Association of York Region.

“I don’t want anyone else to go through some of the pain I went through.” 

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