So many of us have clicked on Facebook shares that show a list of scrambled words that appear to be gibberish at first glance, “it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Scuh a cdonition is arppoiatrely cllaed Typoglycemia”. Needless to say, this is another one of those urban legends spawned by the Internet and no such ‘condition’ actually exists nor does being able to read the above passage mean we have super powers. But there is one thing it does do – it gives us a chance to imagine what it would be like when dyslexic people read.
According to the UK based DORE programme devised by Wynford Dore, a parent who initiated it as a solution to her daughter’s life-long struggle with dyslexia, this learning disability is due to a neurological condition that causes problems with learning language-based skills. Their website further explains, “People who have dyslexia or dyslexia symptoms often have trouble with reading, writing and spelling. It can also affect concentration, short term memory, coordination, math and communication skills. So, being incapable of paying attention for long periods of time, finding it hard to make friends, being prone to tantrums and seemingly insensitive to other people’s feelings are also indications of a dyslexic condition”. But most importantly we are told, “Dyslexia has no reflection on your intelligence – it is about the access to your intelligence”.
Unfortunately in Pakistan, where learning difficulties are still considered a fancy way of saying the child is “lazy” or “stupid”, schools, educationists and parents are unaware that early detection is not just to put labels on the children, nor a money-making scam.
Analysing where the problem lies and structuring what are called ‘remedial’ classes for children (or even adults) can be a life-changing discovery as a single working mother of two, Sarah* clarifies. “For the longest time I knew something was not right. He would make sudden and loud sounds for no reason, he wouldn’t read age appropriate content, he wouldn’t hear our instructions, so we tested him for eyesight issues, ear infections but everything was fine. The primary schools he attended did not pick up on any specific problems and just chalked his poor academic achievements down to weak foundations, laziness or lack of attention on his part”. It took countless trips to institutes such as CARE and ACELP a few years ago, for diagnostic testing and remedial help which then continued through school terms and summer breaks to bring Sarah’s 12 year old son to where he is today. “Parents should realise that it is in the kid’s best interest if we stop blaming the teachers for the child’s poor performance. If there is an anomaly in your child’s neural wiring, it’s no one fault, but you can help them deal with it, that should be your priority”. Her son, now in middle school has had an arduous but fruitful journey to get comfortable in his skin and it has been no small feat on his mother’s part. Keeping her eyes on the ball, Sarah* has left no stone unturned to provide the best possible assistance to her son.
There are several private institutes such as READ in Karachi, Lahore Children’s Centre, and Institute of Psychology, Islamabad as well as the IDEAS institute that have been working in this field, training tutors and providing remedial classes for kids with learning difficulties (and some special needs) such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD to name a few.
But one glaring impediment is the high cost of these services and the inconsistent quality of help they provide. Hira* a mother of 3 has to stretch her budget to accommodate the needs of all her children, which is no not easy for salaried families, “What parent wouldn’t want the best for their children, but it’s not a one-time cost for us. Fees for remedial classes for my dyslexic daughter are exorbitant so we are only able to send her to a few sessions per month. The initial diagnostic test itself can cost between Rs. 8-15,000 which discourages most parents to go in. The whole point of sending your kids to private schools is that they should be able to do the best for your kid, not send us shuttling between other institutes and tuitions to supplement for what they should be providing in the first place”.
Ayesha Khan, a remedial therapist at The Learning Tree, has worked with children with learning difficulties both privately and within schools in Karachi for more than 10 years and feels if parents knew what to notice when, life could be so different for the kids. “Dyslexia is not a disease; their brain functions differently so no amount of scolding and tuitions will help the child do better until and unless they get the right kind of support”. Ayesha uses memory exercises (both visual and with sounds), repetition and reinforcement with her kids, developing one skill fully before moving on the next. “The problem is people don’t realise that these kids aren’t hearing and seeing the instruction the way we give them, they hear something else so therefore the result will be wrong. What we do is train them on how to process the information their eyes, ears and mind receives and then how to deliver the answer based on that”.
In another part of the world, Madiha, the third eldest of four sisters was tested for dyslexia late in the day, at least by school standards in the UK. “My other sisters are dyslexic too, but their difficulties were a little more obvious, so they received training in coping, reading and writing skills early on. Mine was discovered a little later, but nonetheless it changed my life beyond that point. We were provided specifically designed teaching methods, technology assistance and specialised assessment criteria so we never had to catch up to the others, we were taking our own path at our own pace”. These young women, products of a system which is structured to support and boost students with learning difficulties, have gone on to gain degrees in disciplines such as the arts, medicine and economics from the best universities in the UK.
[quote]The child finally sees that someone understands what he or she had trouble with and that they were not making it up[/quote]
Ayesha tries to prepare her students the same way but with absence of diagnostic testing and remedial classes across all private and state institutions in Pakistan and inappropriate attitudes from families, she feels concerned, “I have a young student 8 years of age who is extremely reactive and defiant, because he has always felt marginalised and put down by his peers and his family. This kind of behaviour is his coping mechanism, because no one likes to feel rejected and ridiculed, so it took me a long time to get him to see that there is a way out. These children often feel trapped, because neither they nor the parents know that things can improve”.
[quote]Therapists attribute a great deal of credit to the Bollywood film “Taare Zameen Par”[/quote]
Deena Ansari, a remedial tutor who has been trained abroad worked at the Centre of Advanced Studies in Karachi for 12 years, “Early intervention is the best remedy. In the beginning when a child and even the family come to us and we explain what we can do for them, after performing diagnostic assessment, you can see the look of relief on their faces. The child finally sees that someone understands what he or she has had trouble with and that they were not making it up, they feel validated, and the parents, they feel relieved that their child is not ‘slow’ and can actually start doing well in school”. Both therapists attribute a great deal of credit to the Bollywood film titled “Taare Zameen Par” that released in 2007 poignantly drawing attention to the feelings and experiences of a child struggling with dyslexia. Ayesha recalls, “Ever since the movie came out, a lot more parents came forward to get their children assessed for learning difficulties, which shows that people are aware and concerned. But there are many kids who have not been sent to the right kind of schools or have been home-schooled because they could not cope with mainstream studies and our task is to help them develop skills and rise to their potential, because they all have such immense potential, someone just needs to believe in them”.
[quote]There is no central database that records the occurrence and prevalence of such conditions (or any others) amongst children in Pakistan[/quote]
There is no central database that records the occurrence and prevalence of such conditions (or any others) amongst children in Pakistan, hence every school, every institute is working independently without a concerted effort towards long-term evaluations of children or how well the coping strategies are working and what improvements can be made such as revised examination techniques, inclusion of technology and revising existing curricula.
Madiha, who graduated from the London School of Economics with top honours, took the help she got for granted in lieu of the fact that she had a right to the best academic opportunities her school and her state could provide. “Whatever kind of special needs or learning difficulties you are tested for, subsequently the schools provide us with tutors and computers, visual aids for assignments and exams as well as extra time throughout school and university, which I assume are standard practices. If I didn’t have any of these things I wouldn’t be where I am today”.
Schools such as CAS and The Learning Tree (TLT) along with individuals such as Andrea Khan at The Strategies for Learning Institute are exploring and providing options for families and students, a trend that needs to spread to all schools throughout the country.
Sarah recalls how hearing Andrea speak at a workshop helped her to modify the approach she took to helping her son, “All the things she spoke about, how milestones in our babies lives can influence their speech and auditory development such as verbal and writing skills as they get older, hearing all of that I had a light bulb go on in my head, realising now that how he crawled as a toddler was the earliest symptom of the difficulties he developed later”.
The institute utilises what are known as “vestibular exercises” (VRT) for children with learning difficulties, helping them relive all of their life’s milestones, establishing and reinforcing these pathways in their brain to do simple things such as flexing feet muscles, crawling, reaching, which might seem irrelevant but are in fact crucial stepping stones to prepare them for more advanced ones such as writing legibly and reading fluently. VRT is a viable and effective medicine-free therapy and options such as these can make a world of a difference, swears Sarah, “The quality of my son’s life since he has been taught these skills is drastically better. Children with difficulties tend to have low self-esteem, poor confidence and even suffer from depression and so it is the parent’s job to get them the help they need instead of sending them out into the world, under-prepared. It is hard enough for them to deal with the pressures of being a kid, so why condemn them to a lifetime of frustration”.
In an attempt to employ a viable solution to circumvent these avoidable frustrations, Naila Aladin, (Principal, TLT) has provided an option to dyslexic children to sit for IGCSE examination at her school, specifically because it provides special arrangements such as extra time allowance, specially adapted papers, assistance with reading or writing during exams and supervised breaks. “As these students learn and express their learning differently, it only makes sense that they are tested differently to give them the best chance to demonstrate their abilities” she concludes.
As a dedicated mother who takes the time to educate herself, attending workshops, reading online, researching to not only empower her own children but inspire other parents she meets, Sarah* cannot emphasise the importance of facing the challenge rather than running away from it. “Denial doesn’t make the problem go away. The children know something is wrong, you know something is wrong, so talk about it! Because if you don’t show them there is another way, they could end up dysfunctional, unable to hold down jobs and maintain relationships, as I have seen with adults who didn’t get help at the right time. Why would you knowingly set your child up for that, when there is something you can do about it, right now?”, implores Sarah*, a proud mum of a brave son who is hopeful that the efforts mothers like her make today ensure that these children have a bright and fulfilling future ahead.