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Dyslexia:The plight of right brained people in a left thinking world

FROM a distance, it’s hard to notice that nineteen-year Olushile Joy needs any special help. Her inability to comprehend written words has always been a constant source of worry.

She has always thought school is not meant for her because no matter how hard she tried she is unable to fluently read or spell.

Often, she loses her composure whenever she is asked to read a passage from a book in public because previous experiences had exposed her to humiliating taunts from her teachers and classmates.

“I have problems understanding alphabets because I switch letters in my head, for example where you see the letter “B”, I see letter “D” so when I’m reading I pronounce “but” as “dut”. Though I might try to memorise words to pass a test I can’t when you give me the same test two hours later I won’t be able to write it,” she told The ICIR.

The nineteen-year-old lady from Ogun State currently, studying educational planning and administration at Babcock University, Illishan Remo, Ogun State

Olushile is dyslexic, a condition that makes it difficult linking letters to form words and recognizing letters.

Several years ago, her parents made drastic efforts to help her correct this disturbing condition since her siblings didn’t have such challenges.

They assigned her to read the daily devotional during the family’s morning prayers while her father encouraged her to read every newspaper he bought, hoping her exposure to words would enable her to read fluently.

“My parents were supportive considering they didn’t put me under pressure to get good grades but provided reading materials for me in text form but it didn’t help me because that was not what I needed. I was interested in books with lots of pictures rather than text and that was what I could relate with,” she explained.

Therefore, their efforts did not yield the desired result. Her teachers in primary and secondary schools would rather use canes to “beat” knowledge into her, a measure that only inspired fear in her rather than encouraged her to learn.

Their excuse was that Joy was lazy and unable to grasp what was taught in class at a speedy rate as she barely escaped coming bottom of her class on a few occasions. However, her grades took a turn for the better after gaining admission into the university.

On how she scaled the academic hurdles in the university, she told The ICIR that she devised methods peculiar to herself to enable her pass exams.

“It was difficult for me to cope initially but I had to adopt personal methods on how to study to pass my exams. First, I made YouTube my companion, any topic taught in the class I made sure I got an available video version online to get insight into the topic. If a video of that topic was not available online, I would fall back on a group reading with my friends as they discussed I pay attention. I’m also very attentive in class and brief in writing because I couldn’t spell a lot of words but I try not to use shorthand in writing,” she said.

In her first year in the university, she overheard a lecturer talking about learning disorders and specifically mentioned traits associated with dyslexia.

After listening to the lecturer, she self – diagnosed herself as being dyslexic having lived with all the conditions of dyslexia all her life.

In April, at the prodding of a friend she took three online dyslexia tests and the test results confirmed her initial suspicion. Joy was severely dyslexic.

She then began to come to terms with her new reality after informing the head of her department about her condition.

“My HOD didn’t believe me when I told her because being one of her students with the best Cumulative Grade Point Average, CGPA, in the department she didn’t think I could struggle with reading. Until I recalled instances when she had given me reading tasks to read before the entire class in my first year but I was unable to effectively read without errors,” she told The ICIR.

“My lecturers and some friends don’t believe I can’t spell lots of words, but I’ve decided to speak up because dyslexia is not something to be ashamed of, it’s just a disability,” she said.

Joy is one of the thousands of faceless people suffering dyslexia but not captured by statistics in the Nigerian educational system. Many are students who cannot spell or write with proficiency and has to navigate schools without any support system or drop out.

A silent disability

Dyslexia is a learning disorder that involves difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words.

This condition which medically has no known cure occurs when there is low activity in the left part (hemisphere) of the brain which is responsible for the logical aspect of human thinking which is responsible for reading and word identification. To compensate for this low activity in the left part of the brain they depend on the right (hemisphere) part of the brain to read or write which explains the struggle for dyslexic people.

Dennis Shatima, a neurological paediatrician at the National Hospital, Abuja describes the condition as a silent disability.

“It is a silent developmental challenge, in some children it is majorly detected when it comes to writing and reading, the human brain is interesting such that if you think of something, you can arrange it in a particular way so that it can be understood by another person when it is presented but dyslexic people can’t arrange words, alphabets and figures in their brain,” he said.

He stated that lack of early diagnosis could hinder the progress dyslexic people would have made in managing the disorder.

“When the brain of a dyslexic person is scanned it looks normal but it is the function performed by their brain that differs from others. When it is discovered early it can be managed where they can provide other means of writing for them without doing it in a conventional way. It all depends on the stage at which it is diagnosed,” he said.

A 2017 report on disability gaps in educational attainment and literacy by the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Education showed that literacy among children with learning disabilities was increasing globally. The study showed that children with disabilities were severely excluded from educational policies and therefore lag behind their peers.

The study, conducted in 19 countries, concluded that 3 in 10 children with disabilities have never enrolled in school and just about half of those who do enrol complete primary school.

No relief in public schools

Ben Arikpo vividly remembers the day he acknowledged his son, Femi, (not real name) had a problem with reading.

It was seven years ago, his wife had embarked on a short trip while he was helping his son, Femi, to complete his homework. He noticed that Femi could barely read the work he brought home from school.

“My wife was always telling me before that day that our son couldn’t meet his milestones at school but I was assuring her that he would catch up and he should not be compared to his siblings until I witnessed his lack of progress in reading,” he recalls.

He went to the school the next day and vented his anger on his teachers for their incompetence but they rebuffed his accusations claiming Femi was very hyperactive and playful.

The school could not offer any solution to the problem. After searching for solutions within the country for two years, he had travelled to Germany for a vacation when he stumbled on a brain training programme.

“I took my son’s assessment to them and was told from the results that he had dyslexia, attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity and weak cognitive skills. Though, he was nine years old at the time his cognitive skills were that of a five-year-old,” he said.

He could not afford the costs at the time because the training would take nine months. Since he was on vacation he decided to purchase the franchise for the training after two years of negotiation with the person holding the franchise.

This gave birth to the Dyslexia Foundation of Nigeria which was set up in 2015.

After getting training, he enrolled Femi for the programme and saw significant improvements after the fifth month of the programme.

“At the end of the second term that year I noticed a remarkable turnaround in his grades at school. I came home one day and saw him watching a Yoruba movie and was curious because he doesn’t speak the language and he told me he was reading the subtitles. During the training I withdrew him from every activity in school after closing hour at 2 pm to allow him to concentrate on the training,” he said.

Though official data on the number of children with learning disabilities in Nigeria is non – existent, according to a United Kingdom Department for International Development, DFID, funded survey, Ben decried the non-recognition of people with learning disorders by the government through policies.

“At the moment government’s focus is on people with a physical disability but there is no policy by government to support people with dyslexia or learning disorders even the newly disability act did not make mention of people with learning disorders,” he said.

In a research study carried out by John Ugwu and Ijeoma Adubasim in 2017, published by the Journal for Education and Entrepreneurship using six public primary schools that involved 1,350 pupils,  revealed that one out of every three children in public primary schools in Port Harcourt Local Government Area, Rivers State has a reading problem which is a major pointer to dyslexia.

How to help school children with disability

The high costs of fees charged by these privately -owned special schools and costs of training staff appear to have dimmed the prospects of children of the poor with varying degrees of learning disorders.

The website of Patrick Speech and Language Centre, reveals that a full term costs ₦610,000 while a two hourly session from Mondays to Fridays costs ₦260,000 per term.

Olusola Oluwanuga, a psychiatrist believes a total overhaul of the public health system would enable the government to be able to reach children with learning disorders.

“We need to work harder on our public health system by changing what is obtainable today to revisit the school health policy which was in place many years ago. Then we usually had health workers pay visits to schools to assess the students. They are health personnel designated to a certain number of public schools to monitor and identify the health challenges of students in those schools.

“It is only when this kind of public health system is put in place that the government can properly evaluate mental, psychological and physical conditions of children, especially those from less privileged homes,” she said.

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