Discovering Hidden Disabilities

Latha opens the textbook only to be swarmed by strange patterns that her teacher insists she “read” out to the class. “You’re ten years old! And you still don’t know how to read “the”?” scolds the teacher, as she hurriedly asks another student in the class to begin reading. Latha can hear the whispers of students talking about how she can’t even read accurately in the 5th grade. She glances at her toes as tears fall onto the swirls in the book. 

Since she was a little girl, Latha was always good at drawing, dancing and singing. Her parents would fondly tell her to sing to guests at home every time they visited. However, as she began school, her parents noticed that she had a hard time reading and writing. “She’s just a little slow now, she’ll pick up soon,” they calmed concerned teachers and family. Latha didn’t like going to school anymore, tired of the taunts from teachers and friends who labelled her as “stupid”. She refused to participate in most activities and even avoided interacting with her classmates. 

What do you think is happening to Latha? Almost 10-15% of school-going students in the country are like Latha, struggling to comprehend letters and numbers. It is not because “they are lazy” or “do not work hard enough”, but simply because many of them have a learning difficulty commonly known as “dyslexia”. Dyslexia is a learning disorder that involves difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words (decoding). 

So does this mean that Latha will never be able to read and succeed in school? Absolutely not! With specialised attention and the right kind of tutoring, children like Latha can complete their education and go on to have successful jobs too. 

For the last 27 years, the Madras Dyslexia Association has been working on building awareness about the disorder and helping schools across the state of Tamil Nadu to improve their ability to teach students that have these difficulties. Madras Dyslexia Association (hereon to be referred to as MDA) has been training teachers and resource people to help students with dyslexia. Moreover, MDA is actively involved in creating contextual research and tools across the country to assist in the teaching of students with such learning disorders. 

Last month, Harini and Rashmi from MDA joined Team Mantra and the school leaders from our Affordable Private Schools at the School Leadership Forum to educate about identifying students with dyslexia in schools. The interaction began with an immersive experience where two of our school leaders participated in a simulation of a student’s classroom experience. They were instructed to write “My name is xyz” on a paper. Sounds simple? Well, they were supposed to do this looking into the reflection of a mirror, all while Harini and Rashmi were shouting at them, discouraging them with harsh words. “I felt exhausted and useless at the end of the activity,” shared one of the school leaders. 

Through this demonstration, Harini explained to the school leaders the experiences of students who have dyslexia in a classroom where their inability is unrecognised. She described how students like Latha are present in every school, and yet often there is a failure to recognise them. “Dyslexia is a hidden disability, and therefore we need to address the very problem as early as possible,” shares Harini. 

The two-hour interaction explored various aspects of understanding the learning disorder. It began by recognising the causes, and what happens in the brain of a child with dyslexia, it moved on to understanding what some of the symptoms of the disorder are and finished with the next steps to be taken once the student has been identified. The school leaders were captivated through the session, engaging Rashmi and Harini with multiple questions. 

“Is it okay if I can give you a hug, Harini and Rashmi?” one of the school leaders asked at the end of the session. As they gladly responded with hugs, she shared the story of Abdul Rahman, a dear student. Abdul, like the children Harini and Rashmi described, had struggles reading and would often get into trouble. “I become emotional every time I think about how I could help him, and today I recognised that he was probably struggling with dyslexia and now I know there is a way to help him,” she said with tears brimming her eyes. 

At every School Leadership forum, powerful moments are created, which lead to a profound impact. Through MDA’s collaboration at this forum, our school leaders have been equipped to begin the journey of helping students like Latha. 

Contributed by Team Communications, Mantra4Change

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