We must think differently for the differently abled

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We must think differently for the differently abled

Tuesday, 06 December 2022 | Noopur Jhunjhunwala

From Agatha Christie to Steven Spielberg, from John Lennon to Boman Irani, dyslexics have powered our imagination

Let’s begin with a quick game of ‘Take a Step Forward.’ So, take a step forward if you have helped someone with a disability. Another step ahead if you have donated to support a disability. One more step forward if you have liked an awareness campaign for a disability. Another step if you believe that inclusion of a person with a disability is important.

And the last step forward if a person with a disability has made life easier for you. Taken aback? Can’t think of anything? How about electricity? Maybe cars? What about telephones and computers? Relaxing seeing animated cartoons? Well, this entire list of inventors—from Benjamin Franklin, Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell, Steve Jobs to Walt Disney—is mapped to persons with dyslexia, a learning disability.

Sounds impossible, right? How can our lives revolve around inventions of the differently abled? Aren’t dyslexics the ones who are not able to read, who confuse their b’s and d’s, have terrible spellings and are not able to do math? Yes, that’s right! Dyslexia is a learning disability that impacts processing language.

So, how is it possible that someone who struggles with basic language and math skills, is able to change the world? The simple answer is that the narrative around disabilities and inclusion is so focused on things the differently abled cannot do, and how we need to uplift them because of their inabilities, that somewhere amidst pushing them forward, we have pushed them away from owning their strengths. In doing so, we often cease to think of the flipside—the magical potential and strengths of these people.

 

In this case we forget that individuals with learning disabilities have average or above average intelligence but their brain functions, processes and grasps information differently. This ability to think differently has been coined as dyslexic thinking.

Global studies indicate that the strengths associated with dyslexic thinking are critical skills of the future.

Dyslexia is more common than we realise. While official figures are not available, research indicates that between 15 and 20 crore Indians have a learning disability, of which 3.5 crore are students.

There is no way to determine whether a person has a specific learning disability by merely looking at them.

Let’s rewind a bit. Let’s try a quick activity to help you understand a dyslexic individual’s experience with language and text. Read this, as quickly as you have read the piece so far. I am flipping the sand clock now: ‘I way out de adle to reag, dut I snre cau thiuk biffently.’

Lost and frustrated? This is how a person with Dyslexia struggles with reading simple texts like,

‘I may not be able to read, but I sure can think differently.’ Beyond language, learning disabilities impact executive functioning. So it’s common for them to also confuse left from right, mix up instructions, struggle with time management and be forgetful. This disability, nonetheless, is the reason behind the world’s most indispensable inventions. And that’s not where it stops,

Dyslexics—from Agatha Christie to Steven Spielberg, from John Lennon to Cher, from Boman Irani to Whoopi Goldberg—are powering our imagination. They are also driving employment and growth. In fact, 40 per cent of self-made millionaires are dyslexics. While the list is endless, I am hoping that you are catching on with the importance of what disabilities offer our civilisation. And yet, all their journeys started as a child who was dismissed as being a “duffer”, not good enough to succeed in anything.

In India, we find success stories of dyslexics that have transcended barriers and emerged as educators, civil servants, leading investors, tech leaders, artists and CEOs. The Government has made significant strides in creating an ecosystem of support for people with specific learning disabilities. The first critical step was the 2016 amendment of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPwD) Act to recognise it as a disability .

Next is the emphasis that the New Education Policy (NEP), 2020, lays on inclusion of children with special needs as one of its goals, calling out inclusion of those with learning disabilities in the classroom. The higher education regulatory bodies like All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and University Grants Commission (UGC) have both worked on comprehensive guidelines on provisions to include students with special learning disabilities. But policies alone can’t make it happen. Strong efforts are needed to accelerate screening for early identification of children. We need to strengthen the capacities of our educators to teach inclusive classrooms, especially with the focus on improving learning outcomes. Beyond educational institutions, workplaces need to provide inclusive and enabling environments. Lastly, but most importantly, we need to work together to break the social stigma, look beyond the disabilities and celebrate their abilities.

(The author is Co-Founder, ChangeInkk Foundation, a nonprofit committed to breaking the stigma surrounding specific learning disabilities)

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