Beyond the horizons- Decoding Learning Disabilities

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“Everybody is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live a whole life
believing that it is stupid.”-Albert Einstein
In a typical classroom scenario, there are highly motivated little humans with immense abilities to
creatively think, rapidly process information, and recall the learnt content. Every child is a unique
entity and the world is yet to understand and put a system in place where their every need could be

One such place that could provide great learning opportunities is the school system. Schools are
known to be a perfect place for children to grow, learn and play together.
But, schools could be the most complex places too.
Imagine a classroom where all children think and learn differently. Some are visual learners, some
could learn by listening more, some think through pictures and some rely on movements. One
concept, a variety of learners.
But, the complexity doesn’t end here.

It magnifies when there are children with impaired functioning, difficulties in learning and
understanding concepts and the ones born with disabilities.
With the world moving towards embracing diversity and encouraging inclusion, one of the most
challenging tasks for teachers and schools is to manage the Children With Special Needs (CWSN)
under one roof. The difficulties could possibly multifold in a country like India which is diverse in
terms of language, culture and social setting.
But, the good news is we are progressing!

In 2016, India made a historic amendment in The Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPwD) Act,
2016 by adding 21 more disabilities. India, displayed inclusion in true sense. The world cheered!
The RPwD Act, 2016, grabbed much global attention due to the inclusion of The Specific Learning
Disabilities (SpLD) in the list of 21 disabilities for the very first time in the Indian history of the
disability bill.

But, there are still lesser known facts about SpLD. There are many misconceptions and most
importantly there is little knowledge regarding the way SpLD appears in Indian children.
Globally, the studies around SpLD began in the early 80’s. The research was in the infancy stage.
Difficulties in reading, writing, comprehension and math increased in mainstream classrooms. The
children struggled, parents got worried, and the schools were surprised with these patterns.
The scientific community began to decode learning disabilities. The questions and conclusions were
many. Here are a few accepted conclusions.

Understanding Specific Learning Disabilities

“I want to, but I cannot”

Specific Learning Disabilities is a neurological, language based disability affecting reading and
comprehension (Dyslexia), writing (Dysgraphia), math (Dyscalculia). So, children struggle to
process, think, listen, speak, read and write. So, it clearly affects performance in school thereby
leading to social and emotional issues

“Letters dance, sentences are long, I can’t remember nor can I answer”
Children could struggle to read and write simple words such as ‘cat’, struggle with identifying
letters such as ‘p and q’, face difficulty in understanding numbers, and answering questions due to
lack of comprehension.

“I don’t know why it happens, I am not doing it intentionally”
The exact cause is unknown. But, heredity and complicated pre-birth and pregnancy conditions are
considered as possible factors.

“Will it stop? Can I read and write again?”

It is a permanent condition, it has no cure. But, with interventions, children can be taught skills to
decode and life skills to secure their emotional being.

No tablet or medication could cure this disability. Instead, early identification and evidence based
interventions could make it more manageable.  SpLD is addressed to as ‘Hidden Handicap’.
Because of the fact that it cannot be easily identified or is clearly visible, unlike few other
disabilities. Children seem to simply struggle with decoding letters, numbers, sentences and
pictures. In fact, they demonstrate amazing creative abilities.

SpLD is not caused by economic disadvantage, environmental factors, or cultural differences. There
is no rich and poor drama here!

“I have been struggling to remember colors, shapes, months and weeks…”
The symptoms of SpLD could be identified during the early years, such as in the preschools where
children could struggle with identification and retention of basic concepts such as colors. Research
suggests a strong identification and screening process right at preschools between three to five years
of age to help children better.

Language proficiency issue or learning disability?
One of the biggest challenges in identifying pure cases with SpLD is language proficiency.
Every child in India speaks a minimum of two languages each. We are multilingual!
Majority of schools have English as their medium of instruction where children struggle to converse
in English. English, for many, is a second or a third language where the first one is the mother
tongue unlike other countries.

Hence, when children are assessed for diagnosing SpLD, they struggle to perform on the tests due to
lack of language proficiency rather than showing pure SpLD symptoms. And, these tests are internationally designed not based on the Indian population due to which, there is a sheer possibility of over and incorrect diagnosis!

Children may not have SpLD, instead they could be struggling in English Language Proficiency.
There is a thin line difference and psychologists have to be extremely observant and must engage in
critical evaluation. We need more Indian tools suitable for the Indian population for objective
diagnosis. The responsibility is on the professionals and the school systems today to avoid diagnosis
and focus on structured actions!

What do we do?
The key factors in managing SpLD is:
1. Early identification, as early as in the preschools.
2. The most powerful approach is to begin early interventions. The idea is to ‘just start teaching
them differently than diagnosing them first!’ Experts advise to start applying proven methods known as Evidence Based Interventions and focus on developing skills rather than curriculum. The
idea is to make them love reading, writing and math!
3. An empathetic and considerate school environment where special educators, psychologists offer
support rather than chucking the child out! The treatment is a collaborative approach.
4. To create massive awareness programs for parents and the communities to support and create an
enriching place to thrive.
5. Alternate evaluation systems rather than the usual overwhelming exam methods.
With all said and done, India is marching towards inclusion, the awareness is increasing, the schools
are embracing and children are being accommodated.
There is a lot to do, we have finally begun!

When Agatha Christie’s books were sold in millions worldwide, people read her work. Little did
they know that she struggled with Dysgraphia, a type of Specific Learning Disabilities. They read
her books, but they were unaware that she struggled with writing hence she dictated all her novels.
They say the world still continues to be beautiful for just two reasons- Children and Chocolates!
Children deserve a great learning environment and be known for their uniqueness despite
challenges. They need to be given tools. Tools to empower themselves, to survive despite the odds
and view this world as a happy place!
Children are beyond their disabilities, it is just that they need a world that could understand them

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