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Learning disability in India
In India, around 13 to 14 per cent of all school children suffer from learning disorders. Unfortunately, most schools fail to lend a sympathetic ear to their problems. As a result, these children are branded as failures
THE PAST decade has witnessed a sudden spurt in the recognition of learning disabilities in India. This sensitivity has benefited some children who have to cope with the invisible learning disability. Besides the growing awareness, there are still a number of misconceptions that are associated with the term 'learning disabilities'. The reasons for these misconceptions are manifold. Learning disabilities are heterogeneous with different manifestations.

The hard fact is that learning disability (LD) is real and a stumbling block for a nations development process. The question is why and how it affects development? A person can be of average or above-average intelligence, without any sensory problems (like blindness or hearing impairment) and yet struggle to keep up with people of the same age in learning and regular functioning.

In India, around 13 to 14 per cent of all school children suffer from learning disorders. Unfortunately, most schools fail to lend a sympathetic ear to their problems. As a result, these children are branded as failures. Samir Parikh, a child psychiatrist opines that dyslexia is not a disease but its a lifelong problem and presents challenges that need to be overcome everyday. He is however, optimistic and argues that with proper diagnosis, appropriate education, hardwork and support from family, friends, teachers and others, a dyslexic can lead a successful and productive life.

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, LD is a neurological disorder that affects the brain's ability to receive, process, store and respond to information. The term learning disability is used to describe the seeming unexplained difficulty a person of at least average intelligence has in acquiring basic academic skills. These skills are essential for success at school and at workplace and for coping with life in general. LD is not a single disorder. It is a term that refers to a group of disorders in listening, speaking, reading, writing and mathematics.

The other features of LD are: (a) a distinct gap between the level of achievement that is expected and what is actually being achieved (b) difficulties that can become apparent in different ways with different people (c) difficulties with socio-emotional skills and behaviour.
However, specific reading disabilities, in children and adults, have been classified as 'dyslexia' or 'developmental dyslexia' or even 'specific developmental dyslexia'. These terms are in use interchangeably with LD.

The identification and description of LD began in the western world in the 1950s and 60s. The major developments of the LD movement during this period centered on children, who appeared normal in many intellectual skills but displayed a variety of cognitive limitations that seemed to interfere with their ability to read, write and learn in the classroom. These were essentially deficient general learning processes centering mostly on what we today call distractibility, hyperactivity and visual-perceptual and perceptual-motor problems.

The LD movement in India is of a recent origin and is today comparable with that of its Western counterpart. Reports of lower incidences of LD in the Eastern world were attributed by Western scholars to the general lack of awareness and sensitivity among educationists to the specific difficulties faced by children learning to read in overcrowded classrooms.

The Nalanda Institute report has highlighted that in India during the last two-decade or so, there has been an increasing awareness and identification of children with LD. Despite this growing interest, India still does not have a clear idea about the incidence and prevalence of LD. Unfortunately, epidemiological studies of LD are fraught with difficulties ranging from the very definition of LD, identification, assessment, to socio-cultural factors unique to India.

What should then be the future strategy to cope and overcome the problem of dyslexia? What are some of the biggest challenges facing classroom teachers of learning disabled children? More districts and states are implementing a policy of inclusion for children who before might have been in separate classes. What assistance or resources do you have for teachers who are working with children with so many different ability levels?

Ironically, policy related to learning disability is yet to see the daylight. In absence of such a policy and incongruous environment, children with LD cannot be rehabilitated in regular schools. Though isolating such children from regular schools for training at special schools is not a good precedent, it is the best available option in the prevailing conditions and inevitable too.

Learning disabilities can affect a person's ability in the areas of listening, speaking, reading writing and mathematics and is often first suspected when there is a clear and unexplained gap between an individual's level of expected and actual levels of achievement. Learning disabilities also can encompass problems in the area of social-emotional skills and behaviour, and some individuals with learning disabilities struggle with peer relationships and social interactions in addition to academic challenges.

The good news is that during the past three decades, RCI and Ministry of HRD, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India with the help and intervention of country's strong academic community and specialists studied the instructional techniques, strategies and conditions that best enable students to learn critical skills, especially in the area of reading.

The first step in this strategy should be early detection, acceptance by parents and broad awareness among the academic community and above all a mature handling of the problem. At the government level, there is a need to formulate a constructive policy in this regard. To see that these steps are implemented, school vigilance and parental awareness is equally essential.

So, my answer to above questions is that teachers today are challenged (and charged) to find ways to identify students who struggle and provide them (and their peers) with the very best instruction possible. That is, teaching based on the highest quality research and professional wisdom, and that takes into account not just subject matter, but a student's rate of learning and his or her ability to achieve the highest standards possible within the general education curriculum. Teachers also are challenged due to the lack of resources in schools.

The best sources of assistance and the most promising pool of resources are to be found right there in the school. General and special educators working creatively, sharing ideas and strategies, tapping related services providers and others including speech-language therapists, psychologists and occupational therapists, implementing progress-monitoring activities and sharing responsibility for needed adjustment in instruction.

Despite the fact that dyslexia is a known classroom disorder, it has not reached its optimum awareness levels in the schools in the country. Teachers either ignore the deficiency or blame it on the child's personality branding it as laziness, attitude or aggression. The child continues to graduate from one class to the other totally inept at handling the pressure of the higher classes. This leads to behavioural problems.

Interestingly, Orkids facilitates early intervention in the child's academic life so that he/she learns the strategies and skills necessary to cope with it better and in some cases, overcome it altogether. Early intervention reduces incidence of extreme steps such as repetition of a class or even expulsion, which, needless to say, could have an adverse effect on the child's self-esteem and leave an indelible scar on their psyche. Children with special needs have a right to be relaxed and confident about them and we must, as responsible adults, try our best to help them remain that way.

Nevertheless, there are several agencies in government and non-government sector working in the field and contributing for elimination rather detection of this classroom disorder. ORKIDS institute of higher learning New Delhi is the brainchild of Geet Oberoi who has 15 years of experience in special education. She opened her first center in Kalkaji, New Delhi in the year 2000. The fabulous response it brought from parents and students alike has spurred her on to open the second and third branch in GK II and DLF respectively.

The ORKIDS multidisciplinary clinics is intended to provide remedial services to children with special needs. Classroom situations present various forms and degrees of difficulties and problems relating to phonetics, comprehension, general study skill, computation, speech and language development and visual perception skills. These areas require special care and individual strategy and skills.

In India, SAMVEDA Research and Training Centre, Kolkatta, the brainchild of Surendranath P Nishanimut, a young entrepreneur turned 'Special Educational Needs (SEN)' enthusiast, is another such responsible effort in rehabilitating children with learning disability in India.

Furthermore, The Tata interactive learning disability forum 2008, held in Mumbai on November 29, 2008 and in Kolkata on  December 2, 2008 focuses on urgent need to address learning disability (LD) issues. Focusing on the theme of 'Special Deeds for Special Needs', the TLDF 2008 underlined the importance of early remedial action to help learners with special needs.

The nation's commitment towards achieving the goal 'education for all' remains unfulfilled and will remain so if educational opportunities is not extended to all school-going children including children with LD. More attention to these children by extending support to institutions and schools that help children with LD will certainly improve the scene. There are institutions which have trained personnel who could help assess the extent of damage and treat these children accordingly. Government of India should envisage a national debate on the rehabilitation issue of learning disabled children in the classroom.


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