Dyslexia will push us back if we let it

I grew up in a school where corporal punishment was the norm. Another norm was I being on the receiving end of it. Teachers were almost always displeased at my reading and writing ability.

It took me longer than my classmates to read a passage. Words seemed so altered that they spelled differently in my head. I remember being made fun of often by peers and teachers. I remember the humiliating label of being called lazy. I thought perhaps my eyesight that was weak but even after I wore glasses, things made little sense cognitively on the blackboard. Math particularly was so daunting that I’d break into cold sweat each time the teacher walked in the class.

Turning left or right made the same sense to me when finding my way home from school because it was all a maze anyway. I felt this way, and with this feeling a spectacular kind of shame too, as if together bundled up like two tracks on a railway.

I had what experts call a specific learning disability (SLD) that makes the Broca’s area in my brain process what I see differently from a more healthy brain. It is also known as Dyslexia. As more awareness grows about Dyslexia, young girls such as my younger self are finding a word to shield their sense of inadequacy with. As will young boys.

It took me a US college education to be assessed as dyslexic after my English paper was returned to me underlined in red throughout with the professor insisting I get texted for dyslexia because my spellings were so horrendous. Even then, I would be told to check again, because just maybe, it wasn’t dyslexia, but that I was plain stupid.

Now for young girls like my former self there is a whole month to commemorate – October. There may not be brown girls yet, but there are white poster girls like Erin Brocovich and Keira Knightley to look up to.

There are popular yesteryear Bollywood movies like Tare Zameen Pey by Amir Khan that humanized the story from the angle of the sufferer. From the perspective of a boy child pitted against parents who make academia an Olympic sport.

Growing up dyslexic is like having a disability but without the pity and the perks. In its invisibility lies its greatest harm. I felt threatened by anything remotely academic. Getting a passable grade in Calculus, Statistics or Philosophy for that matter meant it would take twice as long and thrice as hard because I’d have to repeat things over and over.

Looking back, the one thing that got me to a passable reading level was my mother’s intervention. When she knew I was struggling, she taught me a few tricks. One was that she taught me to sound words in my mind’s ear. The other was the ability to break words into architectural blocks so they can be frozen as separate entities and put back together in my mind by my mind’s ear. I learned orally. I’d read notes to myself and learn by hearing them.

Without knowing it, my mom was somewhat following the techniques experts are using to help teach learning tools to dyslexic children. Some children are visual learners, for instance. Dyslexic children need to find what works for them.

In my research, I have come across a new program to be launched by the KP government to help 178,972 dyslexic children across KP. This education intervention aided by DFID is to first help with early detection via assessments. In a pilot study, turned out that 7.8% children were dyslexic in 15 schools with mild to severe levels.

Under this pilot there is to be training imparted to 16 master trainers; a train-the-trainers program targeting 272 teachers from 136 schools across 4 districts and a mass awareness campaign for parents and teachers.

These alone cannot be enough. I doubt that someone would have intervened in my case with only these aids. This is perhaps why there is an equal push in KP to bring about changes at the policy level – to make dyslexia assessments compulsory upon each child’s entry into the formal education system; to allow for teaching techniques especially for dyslexic kids; to allow them extra time during assessments and also to have a vigilant system that monitors their academic progress.

We need teachers to understand dyslexia. We need them to be kind with this understanding. We need them to put in the extra hours on the children who struggle. For this, not just in KP but across Pakistan, there needs to be such programs. Who knows what world we would be living in if Einstein did not find a way around his dyslexia?

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