In India, 10% of children are estimated to be dyslexic, which is similar to the world average but there are no official figures on the subject. Though a handful of groups in India’s big cities have addressed the issue of dyslexia, public awareness and acceptance have been woefully low.
“In India, education and academic performance is an important issue for families. If dyslexia goes unnoticed, it is stressful for the child. People often think that the child is not trying hard enough” says Angela Fawcett who is the vice-president of the British Dyslexia Association.
Most Indian schools do not have programs to help children with learning disabilities, and teachers are not generally trained to deal with the issue, if not completely ignorant of it. The few private schools that offer special education often charge extortionate prices which aren’t accessible to the general public. Educators and analysts state that as Indian schools have become more competitive, they have put too much emphasis on textbook studies and not enough on other skills. Schools simply dismiss children with learning disabilities as badly behaved and hopeless.
“Unfortunately, many in India still think that a learning disability comes under the ‘mental illness’ category and this adds to the shame and stigma”, says T.D. Dhariyal, the government’s deputy chief commissioner for persons with disabilities.
The film ‘Tare Zameen Par’ or ‘Stars on the Ground’ which starred Bollywood megastar Amir Khan, has lifted the veil on an issue that has remained shrouded in private pain for many families in India. The film revolves around a young dyslexic boy who is misunderstood by his family and sent to boarding school to be ‘disciplined’. Here, he meets a teacher who then takes it upon himself to teach those around him about dyslexia. Parents, schools, activists and policymakers have held conferences and public meetings to talk openly about dyslexia since the release of the hugely successful Bollywood movie.
“There has been a sudden awakening about dyslexia in the popular consciousness after the movie. So many people are hearing the word for the first time. People who lived in denial or who hid it for years are now coming out to talk about it”, said Anjuli Nawa, a parent activist who founded Action Dyslexia Delhi.
In 1995, the Indian government passed a comprehensive disabilities law that guarantees rehabilitation, job quotas and housing for people with visual, hearing, mental and physical disabilities. It does not mention learning disabilities. The government estimates that there are 21 million Indians with a disability but that number would shoot up if learning disabilities such as dyslexia.
It is time to change the attitudes which Indian society has towards those with learning difficulties including dyslexia. We need to begin to understand that there isn’t one standard way of thinking and we need to appreciate each individual child’s way of understanding and expressing the world surrounding them.