Fredericton’s Shawn Smith is Championing Uniqueness

Shawn Smith (Image: John MacLean Photography)

Shawn Smith doesn’t want you to think about him – and people like him – in terms of what he can’t do, but what he can.

Smith wasn’t diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) inattentive type until the age of 30 after years of struggling through the education system and being forced to try to fit the way he learned into the same box as his peers.

Smith says it took him years of assuming there was something wrong with him as he faced struggles like failing Grade 10 math four times and making his way through a bachelor’s degree from St. Thomas University with a GPA of 2.3 before he started taking Ritalin to deal with his ADHD and learned to embrace the abilities he did have rather than being frustrated with those he didn’t.

“If you can imagine an old antique truck or car that somebody wants to fix up and they pop the hood, swap out the spark plugs, change the oil and the gas and then they go to turn the engine and you can see the rumble and the flakes of rust start to chip and fall off, that’s what happened in my head,” he says.

“The pieces of the puzzle that never seemed to fit all of the sudden came together with relative ease and I was able to process my thoughts and emotions much more clearly.”

Smith is now an entrepreneur and the founder and CEO of Don’t dis-my-ability Consultation Services, a company specializing in the emerging field of neurodiversity. Through the company, Smith offers counselling for individuals and families, consulting for businesses and keynotes and workshops.

“The aim of Don’t dis-my-ability is to challenge people’s perceptions around invisible disabilities,” Smith says. “A diagnosis is now perceived to be a broken part of a machine that once identified can be fixed. I challenge that by being the example.”

“ADHD isn’t what’s wrong with me, it’s what’s right with me. What’s wrong is people not knowing and trying to squeeze people into a box they have no business being in. They’re being shamed for being different.”

Smith says that his own experiences and realizations that people labelled as having disabilities are actually uniquely gifted are what allow him to help others face similar challenges he has. He explains that these unique gifts shouldn’t be looked at as things to be fixed, but should instead be embraced as strengths.

“If someone walks into my office and they say ‘can you fix me?’ or ‘can you fix my kid?’ the answer is no,” Smith says. “We’re not machines, we’re people. We don’t need fixing, we need nurturing. It’s really about having conversations with people and focusing on what’s right with the individual, not what’s perceived to be wrong.”

Smith says the school system is ill-equipped to deal with students who learn in different ways and don’t fit into the traditional box. He sees the modern idea of inclusion as the opposite of what it should be.

“Inclusion is trying to force people who are different to work towards being the same,” he says. “That’s not inclusion. That’s oppression. Our goal is still to try to get you to be more like us rather than … helping people explore their unique gifts and turning that into the context for everything.”

“The problem with inclusion is that there is no one size fits all. I don’t have answers, I only have perspectives.”

Smith is no stranger to struggles with the education system, not only from his experiences in grade school but during his post-secondary and post-graduate studies as well. Once Smith finished university and worked in a number of fields before being diagnosed with ADHD, he wanted to then return to school but found trouble accessing various programs and resources for students with disabilities that would have allowed him to do so.

He decided to upgrade the GPA from his first degree as a mature student and was able to reach GPA of 3.7, up from the GPA of 2.3 he’d achieved before being diagnosed with ADHD. Smith then took steps towards his desire to become a counsellor and social worker but was denied entry to the Bachelor of Social Work program at St. Thomas University twice and says he was told that he did not qualify for the affirmative action policy for that program.

Smith was accepted to the Masters of Education in Counselling Psychology program at the University of New Brunswick in 2010, which he applied for at the same time as his second attempt at St. Thomas University. He graduated a year later.

Smith says that his struggle with social policies and challenging systems that were created to include individuals with disabilities were part of his motivation for Don’t dis-my-ability.

“What kind of person do I want to be? Do I want to be the kind of person who puts my head down and walks away or the type of person who sticks up for their rights and the rights of others. I started challenging social policy and winning,” he says.

“I know I’m inherently right in what I’m doing and what I’m challenging and I’m very resourceful. One of my gifts is finding loopholes in systems and analyzing discourse and language and how we use it and how it can be interpreted. It came down to me seeing all these programs and policies that were supposed to support individuals with disabilities but just weren’t. … We say we have these programs, but how accessible are they really?”

Smith says that as he challenged the system he saw was failing people and as he began to come out on top, his confidence started to grow and the path he’s on now began to evolve.

“As I realized that I wasn’t dumb, I am smart and was able to do these things for myself, my confidence skyrocketed and I realized I can do this for myself and I can do this for other people in the process,” he says.

Smith is now continuing to build Don’t dis-my-ability and will be speaking at the Trailblazing 2017 conference later this year. He is also developing a podcast called Job Creators to be released likely in May of this year.