Dyslexia is a learning difference (or a disability) of neurological origin that manifests itself when a person begins learning to read. In Bangladesh, dyslexia is a concept alien to most educators and parents, and many dyslexic people themselves.
Dyslexia can be found in people from all walks of life, if diagnosed well. Although the demographical data is likely to vary, dyslexia is said to affect roughly around 10 percent of the population globally. A study in 2015 revealed a 9.02 percent prevalence rate of dyslexia in the primary schools of Dhaka. Apart from this study, there is only a handful of research that has been carried out in Bangladesh which explains the oblivious attitude of common people to the condition. With further studies encompassing a wider age range, a lot more can be told about the current status of dyslexia in Bangladesh.
Dyslexia is also genetically inherited. The genes in play and the neurobiology of the disorder are yet to be understood completely. If not present in the immediate family, it is highly expected to be existing in the extended family. However, no access to education, unnoticed reading difficulties and general disregard can combine to make it perplexing to ascertain.
In conversation with Muhammad Shamsul Huda, founder of Suriyafaz Dyslexiabd and a self-taught dyslexia tutor, it was revealed that dyslexic students were indeed very much present in the community and are struggling deeply in schools and other academic settings. There is a serious lack of awareness and understanding of this language-based disorder in Bangladesh. This, along with the positive diagnosis of Huda's nephew, had spurred the creation of this organisation that has been up and running for about 10 years now.
Huda's journey hadn't been easy initially. During the early days, he had been frequently mocked by people. However, he had received utmost support from his family, especially his elder brother who had been highly sceptical at first but later changed his beliefs after reading a book on dyslexia.
Dyslexia being a lifelong condition does not equate to illiteracy. With the help of dyslexia tutoring, special needs accommodation and in some cases, individualised plans, dyslexic people can be empowered to read, write and spell on their own. Huda says, "By the age of 25 at most, individuals are capable of learning independently given they are taught using the methods fit for dyslexics."
Dyslexia has its symptoms occurring over a spectrum ranging from mild to moderate to severe. It is very possible for two dyslexic people to have a different set of symptoms. The signs of dyslexia can appear as early as pre-school and hereafter vary somewhat according to age. During the preschool years, children seem to have a persistent "baby talk" or mispronunciation of familiar words as well as difficulty in learning nursery rhymes and recognition of rhyming patterns. They struggle to remember how words are spelled and confuse letters that look or sound similar. As they struggle to read and spell, a common tendency is to use vague terms such as "stuff" or "thing" to refer to something and often substitute difficult or new words when reading aloud. They may also skip words. When it comes to speaking, they often have trouble expressing their thoughts. Apart from these tell-tale signs, learners spell the same word correctly and then incorrectly in the same exercise.
Requesting anonymity, Rayed*, 22, says, "I got to know I have a few symptoms of dyslexia in ninth grade." Since then, he has been receiving support from dyslexia tutors. He is currently a third-year student studying Economics in a college under the University of Dhaka.
As they grow up, these issues cumulatively become the cause of poor school grades and low self-esteem. As Rayed recounts, "I did not feel good about myself even though I had been trying my best." Besides linguistic complications, dyslexia leads to poor time management, low power of memorisation and slow physical movement.
Some of these actions frustrate parents and teachers alike and as a result many of them resort to hitting the child as a corrective measure. Huda along with his team has campaigned in many schools till now. After completion, Huda claims that one of the teachers admitted that they no longer hit children when they struggle and instead, they employ the teaching methods they have been shown.
Mother of 22-year-old Sheikh Md Riyadul Islam states, "I wouldn't realise [it] in any other way." Like her, there could be many more unaware parents. Some parents also associate stigma with the condition and refuse to talk. Like dyslexia, it is possible that other learning differences such as dyscalculia and dysgraphia, can go undiagnosed leading to greater number of drop-outs. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, also known as ADHD can also co-exist with dyslexia. It is considered to be a mental disorder and requires a different diagnosis.
In class, they are often labelled as lazy or unintelligent when in fact they are trying harder than their peers to complete the same task. The term "difference" is used in contrast to "disability" because it is a more strengths-based definition and makes it clear that dyslexic people simply learn differently than others do. And this is where Bangladesh struggles.
"There are hardly any schools that take dyslexia seriously," says Huda. To create an inclusive environment for dyslexic students, the problem needs to be targeted at the core of the teaching profession – teachers' training programs. If trainers are made aware of this underlying issue, future educators will be better-equipped when dealing with dyslexia. Simultaneously, students won't have to tolerate a discouraging environment and have a chance at exploring their abilities. "Most of the teachers laugh it off or pass it as autism, which is entirely different," he later adds.
After Huda had started Suriyafaz Dyslexiabd, he received support and training via international collaborations such as Nancy Young (Canada), Dyslexia Daily (Australia), and Breaking Through Dyslexia (India). With the help he had received, he formulated a number of screening tests for his students to gauge their extent of dyslexia, as well as other resources for school teachers. This is an informal evaluation which is sufficient to conclude if a child has dyslexia or not and is usually done by dyslexia tutors. As opposed to informal, there is a formal kind of evaluation conducted by a team of doctors and licensed educational psychologists. With a formal attestation, dyslexic people would have the chance to apply and ask for special accommodation when it comes to examinations.
Dyslexia is different for everyone. People with a mild form may eventually learn how to manage while others may have significant trouble overcoming it. This does not equate to the fact that they cannot succeed in life. For example, Abdullah*, a 26-year-old who got diagnosed with dyslexia when he was preparing for his IELTS, took the help of Huda's teaching methods. He is soon to fly to Ulster University in the UK to begin his MBA.
While dyslexic people struggle with organisation, planning and time keeping, they are highly creative. They can be brilliant at three-dimensional thinking, problem solving and at seeing the big picture. In fact, there are many famous people who we don't know as dyslexic. Some of the greatest minds in history like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking were dyslexic. Leonardo da Vinci's surviving notes and art works suggest he may have had dyslexia as well.
When certain teaching methods are employed, students with dyslexia demonstrate an improvement in scores. It is necessary to continue campaigning about dyslexia as well as other learning differences so that more people feel encouraged to seek help. At the same time, there is a need for professional services and qualified experts who would lead these campaigns and help in diagnosis.
*Names have been changed upon request
1. The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. Signs of Dyslexia.
2. British Dyslexia Association. Am I dyslexic?
3. International Journal of Advanced Research (2015). Prevalence of Dyslexia in Primary School in Dhaka: Its Effects on Children's Academic and Social Life.
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