From being an absolute loner in school, dyslexic schoolgirl Janine Doctor, 16, has gone on to become headgirl and the school’s magazine co-editor.
The key difference, her family says, is that her new school focuses on experiential learning, teachers here have worked as special educators, and the curriculum is modified to suit specific needs of children with learning disabilities such as dyslexia.
Now, there’s a chance that more school teachers and psychologists can adopt similar guidelines, with the launch of DALI (Dyslexia Assessment for Languages of India), a tool book designed to screen and assess reading-related skills of children aged 5 to 10.
Launched by the National Brain Research Institute, along with the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, on October 15, DALI is available in English, Hindi, Marathi and Kannada. Using DALI, teachers and psychologists can assess a child’s sound awareness, skill acquisition capability (reading, writing and number concept), communication, motor coordination, behaviour and memory, through detailed questionnaires.
“With DALI, baby steps have been taken in devising screening tools. But a lot more needs to be achieved to improve the lives of children suffering from learning disability in India,” says Nandini Chaterjee Singh, senior researcher at the National Brain Research Centre, who led the DALI team.
In India, dyslexia affects nearly 35 million children. The incidence of dyslexia among schoolgoing children worldwide is 5% to 20%; in India it is estimated to be about 15%.
“Even the 35 million figure is a conservative estimate. The actual number could be much higher,” says Singh. “Imagine the plight of children who are undiagnosed and left to struggle with the Indian education system, which doesn’t consider the native or dominant regional language as the medium to assess a child’s reading disability.”
Janine knows what Singh means.
From being labelled a ‘misfit’ to being called ‘slow’, she went through it all.
“Numbers and spellings were a big problem for her, so was reading and making sense of long sentences,” recalls Janine’s mother Kamal Doctor, 46. “She used to beg me not to send her to school. She had no friends. Her teachers were rude to her.”
Janine’s hatred for school eventually led Kamal to Mumbai-based child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Zirak Marker. In 2009, Janine was diagnosed with dyslexia, and within two years she was moved to the Aditya Birla Integrated School.
“In the four years since, Janine has bloomed into a confident teenager,” says Kamal, smiling. “The credit goes to her school and teachers. They are trained and flexible in their approach to help kids such as Janine keep up with the learning curve.”
The teacher’s role in picking up on early symptoms is indeed crucial, agree experts.
Currently, a lack of awareness among parents and teachers in detecting early symptoms, and the absence of a standardised screening procedure, are among the two biggest hurdles in diagnosis and assessment.
“Often people think that a child with a learning disability is intellectually impaired,” says Dr Marker, also the CEO of the Aditya Birla Integrated School. “Any learning disability, including dyslexia, is characterised when there is a lag between potential and performance. This does not mean that there is something wrong with the child.”
To diagnose specific learning disorders such as dyslexia a child’s Intelligence Quotient should be above 70. Anything below 70 is what amounts to intellectual impairment.
“We also have to rule out Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, depression and anxiety, before a child is diagnosed with a specific learning disorder,” says Dr Rajesh Sagar, professor at the department of psychiatry at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). “It is best if the diagnosis is made up to 10 years of age.”
“The earlier dyslexia is diagnosed, the quicker remedy can begin. However, some parents feel that their child is being singled out, others are reluctant or in denial of seeking remedial sessions or occupational therapy,” adds Mumbai-based Dr Samir Dalwai, chairperson of the Indian Academy of Paediatrics’s childhood disability chapter.
Dr Sagar agrees. “Because of the stigma attached, most parents don’t approach a psychologist or a psychiatrist until their child reaches Class 10, a time when they need a disability certificate to submit to the board to get concessions like extra time, or a scribe, during exams,” he says.
Approaches may differ, what is crucial is that every child gets the right attention and care. So while schools such as the Aditya Birla Integrated School is centred on specialisation, Delhi’s The Shri Ram School believes in inclusive education.
Eventually, the end result is what matters, according to Janine’s father Marzaban. “Today, Janine is the complete opposite of the child who used to quietly stand in one corner fidgeting with her dress,” he says.
(With inputs from Heena Kausar)