Until two years ago, the odds were stacked against Srinivasa. His parents scolded and nagged him for his failure to cope with the stress in class, and for his inability to read and write in English and in his mother tongue Kannada. As his classmates laughed at his mistakes, he kept away from them. Teachers felt he was being deliberately obtuse.
But today the 11-year-old, Srinivasa, happily attends his school, can read and write, but of course with the help of special educators in school.
Using DALI (Dyslexia Assessment for Languages of India), a screening and assessment tool in four Indian regional languages, teachers and psychologists assessed Srinivasa’s sound awareness, skill acquisition capability in reading, writing and numbers, communication, motor coordination, behaviour and memory.
Pinpointing his areas of difficulty, the test helped them realise the child was not thickhead.
Experts say early diagnosis of dyslexia — Srinivasa’s disability — can go a long way in helping children with specific learning disability, which is neurobiological in origin. The inability to achieve adequate reading skills despite normal intelligence, equal opportunity and adequate classroom instruction is termed as dyslexia. It has a biological basis and occurs because of differences in brain wiring.
“If not addressed, we stand to lose out on a significant chunk of the literate population from future productive workforce of the country. In fact, in the absence of tests in different languages and writing systems, dyslexia assessment is often restricted to English, leading to inappropriate and incorrect assessment of the child,” pointed out Professor Nandini Chatterjee Singh, who along with her team, developed the tool under a project supported by the Government’s Department of Science and Technology
DALI is the only standardised test currently available in India in four languages to detect the learning disorder in which people find it difficult to spell and process verbal and written instructions.
Developed and tested at the country’s only neuroscience and research institute National Brain Research Centre, Haryana, an autonomous body funded by the Department of Biotechnology in 2015, DALI is now seen as a new hope for children who speak in regional languages, besides English.
Professor Singh said, “DALI has been standardised and validated across nearly 4,000 children from Class 1 to V in various schools. It is currently available in Hindi, Marathi, Kannada and English and work is underway to extend it to Tamil, Telugu and Bengali. Importantly, it is not curriculum based, thus facilitating its use across the country in bilingual children.”
The tool was standardised and validated in various schools at five centres namely Orkids Centre for Learning Disabilities, Delhi; Centre of Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences, University of Allahabad, Allahabad; Maharashtra Dyslexia Association, Mumbai; Dr. Shanta Vaidya Memorial Foundation, Pune; and All India Institute of Speech and Hearing, Mysore.
While DALI has not gained ground in India as the Government is yet to notify it for use across schools in the country as a part of a national policy, this multi-lingual screening and assessment tool has already generated a lot of interest among neighbouring countries like Nepal, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, to name a few.
In fact, realising its potential, the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP) has decided to scale it up further. UNESCO-MGIEP brought Professor Singh on it board to take it further to neighbouring countries, like Afghanistan and Bangladesh where awareness about the dyslexia is even lower, although the problem is prevalent.
Professor Singh, now working on DALI extension at UNESCO-MGEIP, said, “I have already conducted two awareness programmes in Nepal and Bangladesh, and more are being planned.”
On its part, UNESCO-MGIEP has been holding many such workshops in Delhi and in different parts of the country to reach out to children with learning disability. “UNESCO-MGIEP aims to extend the DALI test to all other regional languages in India and the Asia Pacific region for early detection and diagnosis of learning difficulties,” said an official from the UN body.
The research is clear that approximately 10 per cent of the global population has dyslexia. Although there is no definitive study, around 10-15 per cent Indian children are afflicted with dyslexia that is equal to nearly 35 million children.
Various Delhi schools private and those run by the State Government have found DALI useful in screening such problems. “They have approached us for extending the test to higher education classes because teachers have been identifying children who are not able to read even in the eighth or even higher classes. The State Government wants to know how many kids have learning disability and how many have not been taught by the teachers,” said Professor Singh.
Psychologist and special-needs (children) educator Geet Oberoi has been using DALI in her Orkid centres across the country. “I find it very useful. However, since so far, the tool is validated just for Class III to V. We are waiting for the tools for higher classes. It may happen within next six months.”
Other Indian assessments for learning disabilities include DST (Dyslexia Screening Test) and Bangaluru-based National Institute of Mental Health and Allied Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) Index for SLD and Behavior Checklist for Screening the Learning Disabled developed by Swarup and Mehta (1991), abbreviated as “NIMHANS battery”.
Presently, the “NIMHANS battery” is the only test notified by the Government for screening and certifying children with dyslexia. This “battery”, consisting mostly of Western and English language-based tests, was developed over three decades ago. Developed as part of a small sample for a PhD thesis at Bangaluru and never developed or tested further, it is the only tool accepted for certifying dyslexia as a disability.
However, Professor Singh argued the NIMHANS battery is not for non-English speakers. It is also curriculum based, and results are often subjective.
Since the Government has not notified DALI, psychologists cannot use it for issuing disability certificates under the Rights of Persons with Disability Act, 2016, which brought dyslexia under the umbrella of disability.
It is now time to audit the NIMHANS battery or look for other tools. A senior NIMHANS’ psychologist agreed. On the condition of anonymity, she said the NIMHANS battery was developed keeping in mind needs at that time.
“However, a large number of children who come to us for screening, we are able to get the answer for the question through the NIMHANS battery. The problem comes when it’s about the higher-class kids where we too are in a fix as to how to decide their learning disability,” said Professor Singh.
She felt that it was high time that NIMHANS battery, which is just for English language, test is relooked and modified with the changing needs and increasing awareness about the condition.
Centre of Excellence in Mental Health, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital Delhi, has already started a project comparing the two tools: DALI and Nimhans Battery. Professor Smita N Deshpande, heading the project, said, “We need to help these children in every possible way. To that end, we are now trying to compare DALI and NIMHANS battery as part of a larger scientific project as well as extending DALI for adults, because children with such disabilities have a special quota in college admissions as well as in Government jobs.”
Due to lack of awareness, their department has been facing demands for dyslexia certification for people as old as 22- 23 years. “Moreover”, she said, “Children with dyslexia see the world differently and this has valuable implications for the future of human development. We must help them at the earliest.”
When contacted, KVS Rao, a senior official from the Union Social Welfare Ministry said it is the prerogative of the Union Health Ministry as to which tool should be notified. “We are just an implementing body,” he pointed out.
The Indian Psychiatric Society (IPS), currently excluded from certifying childhood disability although its psychiatrists are trained and willing to do so, has already written to the Ministry about these lacunae, said an office bearer of the IPS.
Geet pointed out, “Children in India receive education at school in at least two languages. It is necessary that the assessment of dyslexia be carried out in all languages that the child is exposed to. In India, the diagnosis of dyslexia has been incomplete because of the absence of standardised, validated assessment tools in regional Indian languages.” She stressed on early identification of child’s learning disability.
Talking about DALI’s scientific standing, Professor Singh explains that DALI has around fifteen questions which the teachers, who have taught the child for at least six months, need to fill in. A teacher needs about six months to know what type of problem a child is going through.
“Suppose the child has appeared in Class IV, the teacher will try to assess him to see why the kid has not been able to do his homework. ‘Has the teacher not taught him properly or the child is having some problem’ can be identified. Once the problem has been identified, the psychologist can draw up an individual action plan,” she explained.
“We would like DALI for other languages also,” HB Singh, a senior official in the Department of Science and Technology which funded the project, said, adding, “and we could potentially have new testing formats, like online questionnaires, to popularise this.”
Given that appropriate dyslexia assessment and early remediation is the right of every child, it is important that such initiatives be undertaken as part of the Government policy. Only then can we bring back the smiles on faces of kids like Srinavasa, who have all rights to feel good about themselves.
(The writer is Special Correspondent, The Pioneer. This article was published with support from the India Science Media Fellowship 2019 by the Welcome Trust/ DBT India Alliance and Nature India )