The Back Benchers - By: Fatima DAMAGUM | Dailytrust

The Back Benchers

There is a popular Nigerian joke which says that there are only four career options available to children when they eventually grow up- doctors, lawyers, engineers and a disgrace to the family. And while this pun might appear seemingly harmless, it is a fact that all parents, not only those from Nigeria, would like their children to be smart. That is why we paste bumper stickers proclaiming ‘my child is an honour roll student at XYZ school’ and brag about it to our friends. A brilliant child who wins all the prizes and is at the top of their class is something to be immensely proud of. But what about those who aren’t?

Last week a mother brought her child to the clinic with an uncommon complain. She wanted her child to be evaluated properly as the teacher had written a scathing remark on his report sheet stating that Faruk* was lazy, dull and “not willing to apply himself”. The teacher had even gone on to hint that 10-year-old Faruk would be better off practicing a trade than attempting to go to secondary school. Faruk’s mother explained that her child was not slow. He was able to tell stories and remember dates and interesting facts about places and people. He could calculate money and how to share foodstuff she sold in her shop.  However, she noticed that his writing was bad and that he usually asked his siblings to read out aloud his school books to him. Whenever she asked him to write a message or send a text from her phone, he would suddenly appear distressed and announce that he needed to go to the toilet. Yet, she knew in her heart that her child was not slow- how could a child who had memorised more than half of the Quran at age 10, without difficulty, be considered dull? Still, she too noticed that he struggled with Arabic alphabets, perhaps it was his eyesight she wondered out loud.

As she narrated her complaints, I watched Faruk’s face as he appeared to shrink even further in his chair. The poor boy was thoroughly embarrassed and my heart went out to him. He had a learning disability, most likely dyslexia, and sadly, was being punished for it.

It’s nothing short of amazing to consider the fact that even though dyslexia was identified about 150 years ago, there’s still a lot of misunderstanding and outright prejudice about it, even among some highly trained educators.

Indeed, countless dyslexia sufferers are discriminated against and repeatedly told that they’re not trying hard enough or that they’re unmotivated or that they just need medication. When a child with dyslexia tries to learn in an environment that doesn’t recognize and accommodate learning challenges, a little piece of that child’s psyche dies every day he or she goes without help and without understanding.

The World Federation of Neurologists said it is a disorder in children, who, despite conventional classroom experience fail to attain the language skill of reading, writing and spelling commensurate with their intellectual abilities. In relating dyslexia with learning disabilities, the National Institute of Neurological Disorder and Stroke defined the condition as a disorder that impairs a person’s ability to read and which can visibly manifest as a difficulty with phonological awareness, phonological decoding, orthographic coding, and auditory short-term memory. In other words, dyslexia is a learning disability that can hinder a pupil’s ability to read, write, spell and sometimes speak.

Most children love to learn in school but some cannot cope adequately because they have difficulties with learning the letters of the alphabets, associating sounds with letters that represent them, identifying and generating words. A closer observation of the kids that fear learning, researches have shown, suffer from dyslexia. It is believed that dyslexia can affect between five and 10 per cent of a given pupil population, although there has been no studies indicating an accurate percentage. In Nigeria, statistics are not readily available and not much is known about dyslexia.

According to the Dyslexia Foundation Nigeria, knowledge of the condition is not common in Nigeria and as a result, children grappling with the challenge are beaten, called names, bullied and jeered at – leading them to develop an inferiority complex. Unfortunately, before it is discovered if it ever is, the damage has been done, the person is intimidated and will lose self-confidence.

As there are different types of dyslexia, children with this disorder present differently too. I once heard of a child who said “the letters in the book she was asked to read used to jump up and down” and therefore she could not focus on them. Another child said the words were too long and another said he was crippled by fear when he saw a word he did not recognise. To date, I have a friend who prefers comics as that is the only way he can understand the story being portrayed. Back then we called them the backbenchers.

Over the years, I have read about several celebrities who have openly discussed their struggle with dyslexia: CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Whoopi Goldberg, Tom Cruise, Richard Branson and even the brilliant Steven Spielberg. Legendary film director Steven Spielberg wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until he was in his 60s. School administrators thought he was lazy. He was bullied by his classmates and his troubles in school played a part in his career. Not only did making movies give him a place to channel his energies, but feeling like an outsider helped him co-write The Goonies, a hit movie about a quirky group of friends who didn’t quite fit in at school. He said finding out as an adult that he has dyslexia was like “the last puzzle piece to a great mystery that I’ve kept to myself.”

One of the things that resonated with me specifically was the story of Agatha Christie. How many millions of folks have loved and have been entertained by her amazing stories? Yet her dyslexia and dysgraphia were so bad that she had to dictate her stories to her secretary or else they would have gone untold. I hate to imagine what would have happened had Agatha been born in Nigeria- we would have labelled her slow and relegated her to selling Kosai by the roadside.

These days, there are standard tests (not biological) used to screen and diagnose dyslexia. Parents and teachers are becoming increasingly aware that not all children who are at the bottom of the class have low IQ. Screening tests, such as Predictive Assessment of Reading (PAR); Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) and AIMSweb screening assessments, developed by researchers for these purposes should be used with all children in a school, beginning in kindergarten, to identify students who are “at-risk” for reading difficulty. These tools are available online and are mostly free. Preventive intervention should begin immediately, even if dyslexia is suspected. How the child responds to supplementary instruction will help determine if special education services are justified and necessary.

While there are many theories about successful treatment for dyslexia, there is no actual cure for it. The school will develop a plan with the parent to meet the child’s needs. The plan may be implemented in a special education setting or in the regular classroom. An appropriate treatment plan will focus on strengthening the child’s weaknesses while utilizing the strengths. A direct approach may include a systematic study of phonics. Techniques designed to help all the senses work together efficiently can also be used. Computers are powerful tools for these children and should be utilized as much as possible. The child should also be taught compensation and coping skills.

Imagine living in Nigeria with dyslexia. Just imagine it for a second. Imagine not being able to read signs. Imagine coping with bulky notes in primary and secondary schools. Imagine being called dull all your life. Imagine trying to cope in a tertiary institution. Imagine being frustrated because you cannot read a simple instruction manual e.g for setting up a device?

Sometimes the things we take for granted- even something as mundane as reading and writing, is someone else’s nightmare. And when this happens within Nigeria’s apathetic educational system, there is a limit to what we can do. Faruk’s mother was happy with the information she received at the hospital but then she was faced with another challenge- what next? How many schools in Nigeria catered to kids with dyslexia? And most importantly- can she afford it?