Kids with dyslexia are intelligent ones who fail in a system that puts a premium on reading, writing and rote-learning. All they need to shine is to be understood

The useful Madras Dyslexia Association handbook starts with this note: “Thomas Alva Edison, inventor of the microphone, phonograph and the electric light... could never learn the alphabet and arithmetic tables by heart, his spelling and grammar remained appalling throughout his life. At nineteen he wrote this to his mom: How all the fold did you receive a Box of Books Memphis that the promised to send them languages.” Edison, one of the greatest inventors of all time, was dyslexic.

Children with dyslexia have gone on to become managers, mass communication professionals, doctors, lawyers, bankers, event managers, animators and, of course actors, says Vilasini at Ananya Learning Centre, a project of MDA. “An eight-year-old severely dyslexic kid with no reading / writing skill studied with us till he was 16. He wrote Class X Board examinations as a private candidate, joined National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS), did Catering, and is now interning with a popular hotel group.” In 1992-93 an 18-year-old who had heard on a television programme that every child could be taught, walked in and asked, “Can you teach me?” He now runs a web security firm.

Taare Zameen Par shone the light on dyslexia, but better understanding still eludes us, says Vilasini. In the Federation of Neurology’s words, dyslexia is “manifested by difficulties in learning to read despite conventional instruction, adequate intelligence and socio-cultural opportunity”. Kids with dyslexia often write numbers / words in the reverse order, spell badly, answer questions but can’t write them, draw but have poor handwriting, and are inconsistent in performance. They are intelligent kids who fail in a system that puts a premium on reading, writing and rote-learning. About 10 per cent of school-going kids in India are dyslexic.

Being invisible, the disability leaves teachers flustered, parents frustrated and the kid battered emotionally. Failed in class, un-friended and bullied by peers, labelled lazy and spoilt, scolded for being disorganised, they remain misfits. After eight hours of classroom struggle, they are packed off for tuitions — a situation no different. Soon they give up, seek solace in sleep, misbehaviour, withdrawal. “They have to fight all the way, it’s not fair to ask them to go through it,” says Vilasini.

Early intervention is the answer. Hospitals could put up posters, distribute pamphlets on developmental milestones to new mothers. They should tell mothers that delay in crawling affects left-right integration, and that delay in speech impairs language acquisition. “Parents dismiss it saying, ‘My grandfather was late too’,” says Vilasini. “Instead they should be alert for signs.” Once diagnosed, kids can be taught — to listen, to deal with bullying, to protect self-esteem.

Teachers have to learn to teach — not in the way they know how to teach, but in the way the kid can understand. A basic education package for the class is fine, but if it doesn’t work for a kid, “pull him out, give him remedial education tailored to his needs. Make education practical and project-based”. Teachers have to recognise dyslexia is a fine-motor problem. In hundreds of schools there is no awareness at all.

Parents must come out of denial, avoid comparisons to other kids, says Vilasini. They should get help, must be told of affordable resources. We have to be a dyslexic-sensitive society, starting with acceptance. Dyslexia is genetic. Accept your child for who he is; there is stigma only because you believe in it. See that he has friends, plays structured games. Talk to him about his life, feelings. A 13-year-old asked: “I get punished often, I know I do things wrong, but have my parents ever asked why?”

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The MDA remedial centre does awareness workshops in schools, clubs, residents’ associations, assessments in general and for Board-exam preparedness, early screening for five- and six-year-olds. Teacher training is for eight weeks, twice a year. Mainstream teachers can benefit from weekly and end-of-April courses. Parents who come from far can avail themselves of in-house courses in occupational therapy. At the Ananya Centre, students excitedly answer questions on forming a sentence that had numbers, grammar, meaning, logic and sequence. Shouldn’t all classrooms be like this, lessons planned to meet every child’s need?

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MDA organises Samyukth 2013, a seminar for parents, teachers, special educators, therapists, policy-makers and writers. Professionals in Psychology, Psychiatry and Occupational Therapy will discuss how our social, cultural, educational needs are different from Western models and share their experiences on what works for us. The sessions will centre on practical approaches and Indian-context-friendly tools. It will be held on December 7 and 8 at IC and SR auditorium, IIT-M. For details, call 2815-6697 / 7908 or mail samyukth013@gmail.com.