Advisory: Don't let Learning Disabilities ruin your life!
Shivani Manchanda, 16 Dec 2013
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A child with learning disabilities needs innovative learning strategies to use all of his intelligence

RAJESH was not performing well in class. He came to me to get information about career options, which were not too academic but vocational in nature. Mid-way through the session, he broke down and cried. On probing further it turned out that Rajesh felt guilty for not being academically bright. Despite his father’s beatings he could not perform well in school. On further probing, I discovered that he had been tested for Learning Disability (LD), and had dyslexia and some dysgraphia . His father obviously believed that LD could be beaten out of the child. The memory of that counselling refuses to leave me. How could a well educated parent beat his child for having LD? Lack of acceptance and denial are the biggest obstacles to the intervention that can be provided for students who suffer any form of LD.

Diagnosing Learning Disabilities
LD is the inability of children to learn in the conventional sense. Owing to certain differences in the functioning of their brain they are unable to learn with standard education techniques. Dyslexia, a type of LD, is a reading disability with genetic and neurological causes. Scientists including Dr Azizuddin Khan at IIT Bombay are studying the neuro-physiological causes for dyslexia.

“Dyslexia is characterised by deficits in phonological processing abilities and children with dyslexia lack the ability to link sounds to written words. Therefore they have difficulty in reading, writing legibly and spelling,” he shares. The situation can get complex. “None of these disabilities exist in isolation making each individual unique and requiring personalised attention,” he explains. A person can display a range of disabilities, which impair the ability to learn. Thus ADHD, autism and various types of learning disabilities are presented in various permutations and combinations. This makes screening and developing a learning plan a complex task.

Select Learning Disabilities
Issues & problems 
Letter and word recognition; understanding
words and ideas; reading speed and fluency;
general vocabulary skills; reading aloud and writing compositions; following instructions
Struggles with reading a clock, classifying mathematical signs like plus, minus, multiplication; have trouble calculating bills and using a calculator
Neatness and consistency of writing; accurately copying letters and words; spelling consistency; writing organisation and coherence
Children with ADHD often have problems sitting still, staying focused, following instructions, staying organised, and completing homework. Though it is not a learning disability ADHD impacts the ability of a person to learn and perform well in an academic scenario. ADHD is difficult to diagnose and requires special interventions like behaviour therapy

The laziness label

Shruti came to me just before her Class 10 exams. She had recently been tested for LD and she had dyscalculia and ADHD. Her parents were in a state of shock and disbelief. LDs are sadly not identified early in a school or at home. Children with LD are needlessly labelled as lazy, slow and or stupid, since these children have normal intelligence and know a lot verbally, it is hard for adults to correlate low grades with the otherwise smart kid and hence the “lazy” label. So when should you test? Even though testing and screening are long drawn out processes, a rule of thumb is, if a child by the first or second grade is suspiciously slow in reading, writing and or maths then testing is recommended. The earlier the identification is done the greater are the chances that the child can be helped to develop alternative learning strategies which can form the foundation of complex learning to be done in life subsequently.


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MOST SCHOOLS are not designed to cope with dyslexic students and ask parents to move them too special schools

Tapping intelligence
It is important to state that the intelligence of people with LD is not impaired. They can definitely learn but they need special educational strategies to help them do so as LD impacts only certain areas of the brain and not the complete brain. Thus intelligence or the potential to learn is normal in a child with LD but they need innovative learning strategies to use this intelligence. Our school system relies completely on standardised uniform learning methods where a child can read, memorise and learn. Unfortunately schools are not designed to cope with children whose alphabets get scrambled while attempting to read and need unusual teaching methods to learn.

This deficit in the school system creates back-benchers and slow learners of the children who are actually overwhelmed with LD. On the positive side, since very early on children with LD are frustrated in their attempts to learn just by reading and have to rely on innovative learning strategies to succeed, it can enable them to have perseverance and become creative.

A case in point is scientist Albert Einstein who according to several sources had dyslexia, and reportedly did not fare well in many subjects at school. But it did not prevent him from excelling in Physics and winning the Nobel Prize for his contribution. Over the years, he persisted in finding the solution to the problem that if he moved at the speed of light holding a mirror will the mirror show his reflection or not? Finding the correct answer to this problem helped him come up with the theory of relativity. Considering the vast number of geniuses and entrepreneurs who have LD there are some studies which are trying to research the link, if any. Whether your child is the next genius or not, only time will tell.

Individualised Learning Programme (IEP)
Providing an adequate learning environment appropriate for your child is the first seed that you as a parent can sow and then nurture. Individualised Learning Programme (IEP) is the best way forward in proactively handling LD as it integrates the capabilities of the child with customised learning strategies. Three times Golden Globe winner Tom Cruise, also dyslexic, was beaten and abused by his father when he was young and despite the challenges that life presented he found unusual methods to cope with his disability. He uses audio tapes to memorise his lines and overcome his difficulty in reading, giving us an example of how out-of-the-box thinking can help achieve your goals.

Schools, unfortunately, unless they believe in “inclusive education” are more likely to encourage the parents to remove the child from the regular classroom rather than to provide much needed support. Parents therefore, along with special schools and other parent support groups, very often have to become champions of the student’s abilities and capabilities in seeking learning support for children with LD.

Exam exemptions
Since Shruti’s LD was not identified in time, Shruti’s family was in disarray a few months before the board exam. For apart from handling the emotional trauma of being labelled different they also had to deal with the procedures in school and board to gain exemptions in exam setting. National and State boards in India vary on the concessions they provide for children with LD but in order to give exemptions all boards insist on the test report being from approved centres. Needless to say the process of getting these exemptions is tedious and frustrating. It is very easy at this stage to lose hope. But as they say it is the trying moments of life which give us an opportunity to grow as individuals.

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 “Schools are not designed to cope with children whose alphabets get scrambled while attempting to read and need unusual teaching methods to aid learning”  

Emotional support
Families cope with the situation in their own unique ways and hence it is difficult to give one formulaic answer that would benefit all. However, take into cognizance the emotional impact of realising that your child has LD and help your child to understand and accept the challenging journey ahead. Openly discussing LD and the problems associated with it can normalise the situation for the child.

In contrast, a secretive approach attaches a sense of shame to the situation and convinces children that something is lacking in them and can result in low self-esteem and isolation. Learning to express themselves, dealing with frustration, and overcoming challenges independently are important life skills to acquire along with academic skills.


Dealing with LD
Very often by focusing on your child’s growth as a person, and not just on academic achievements, parents can help children cultivate positive emotional habits that set the stage for success throughout life. Facing problems head on, knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses and not being ashamed of having LD is almost the first step in dealing with it.

A student named Roy consulted me in a bid to study Landscape Design in a British University. I admired the way he openly discussed his LD and asked me to find out about the special provisions, if any, that the University could provide for him. He candidly asked for help in matters that troubled him and made friends easily with others going to the same University. Roy is obviously a well-adjusted student who has taken dyslexia in his stride and is making the way forward towards his future.

Famous dyslexics
Many successful dyslexics have overcome their specific drawbacks by identifying their unique strengths. Sir Richard Branson, the famous business magnate who has established 400 companies under the Virgin Group, is also a dyslexic who has used his intuitive understanding of people to build a flamboyant business empire while sidelining the dismal performance he had in academics. He understood this strength while he was associated with the college newspaper, which mainly involved interacting with people.

He also built on his diverse interests and abilities by breaking several hot air balloon flight records. So taking a cue from Branson, if you expose your child to various opportunities, maintain a positive outlook and refuse to be defeated then you will be able to facilitate this arduous journey which your child will have to undertake. Your maturity and wisdom can be effectively used as a compass till your child launches a life on his own. 

List of online resources
Maharashtra Dyslexia Association
Delhi Learning Disabilities Association
Madras Dyslexia Association
Indian Dyslexia Association (Bangalore)
















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Shivani Manchanda is a Career Consultant & Director of Career Track, Mumbai.

Post your queries and Shivani will be happy to respond!

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