Living with Dyslexia in Malaysia

STAR article 7 July 2005

Deciphering the written word may not be their strength, but with the right support, dyslexics can excel. CHO SUET SEN, a mother to a child participating in the National Dyslexia Programme, writes.

DEFINING DYSLEXIA

THE word “DYSLEXIA” derives from the Greek language. DYS means ‘difficulty’ while LEXIA means “written words”. About five to 10 per cent of the population or 1 in 20 are dyslexics. That is, they find it hard to learn to read and write, even though their level of intelligence is ‘normal’ with an average IQ of 100. In fact, some are very bright with IQ exceeding 100.

Other than the fact they have difficulty in decoding written words, dyslexics do not have apparent deficits in the areas of speech and social interaction which are prevalent in varying degrees among those who fall under the category of “learning disabled”(LD).

In developed countries, dyslexia is defined as a Specific Learning Disability. But in Malaysia, dyslexia is still listed under the LD category that includes persons with autism (which in itself has a broad spectrum), Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy and mental retardation. The current LD classification is for persons with IQ less than 70. To put dyslexics under the LD category would mean they are slow learners. But they are not.

To cater to their needs, a different assessment for exams should be implemented just like their Western counterparts. For example, instead of having to sit for five subjects in UPSR, dyslexics need to take only three. Further, readmasters and writers should be provided for dyslexics during examinations to enable them answer the questions orally and that they be given extra 50 per cent of the test time.

Since language is an issue with persons with learning difficulties, they should be exempted from having to cope with more than one language in school. There should be an option to have the entire lessons taught either in Bahasa Malaysia or English but not both together. By concentrating solely on one language, it would reduce stress not only for the students but also for the teachers and anxious parents. 

      There is also need to review the teachers’ training curriculum to include a chapter on dyslexia to create awareness and to better prepare teachers when dealing with students who show signs of dyslexia.

      Researches in America and the United Kingdom show that out of every two prisoners, one is a dyslexic. But with the right support and appropriate early intervention many dyslexics could be spared from the consequences of self-condemnation for not being able to read and write.     

My Son and the National Dyslexia Programme

LAUNCHED last year, there are to date 30 schools across the country which had been earmarked for the National Dyslexia programme. In Kuala Lumpur, there are three schools  participating in the programme, namely Sekolah Kebangsaan Taman Tun Dr Ismail (SK TTDI), SK Taman Maluri, Cheras and SK Air Panas, Setapak. Parents elsewhere are also pushing for a similar mandate and they include those in Subang Jaya as there are at least 30 students there who had been diagnosed with dyslexia but have yet to receive assistance.

In order for students to qualify for the programme, they have to be officially diagnosed as dyslexics. The mild and moderate dyslexics are put in the mainstream classes. They are only withdrawn for subjects that they are weak in which currently are Bahasa Malaysia and Mathematics. They are allowed to sit for UPSR at the age of 14 instead of 12.

      While I am glad that finally there is programme for the dyslexic students, the Education Ministry should introduce a feedback system to continuously improve upon it.

I have been told that the Ministry is considering the move to allow dyslexics students to have additional 25 per cent of the exam time and to introduce a gadget which allows the students to have questions repeated at the press of a button and that enables them to change the questions’ font size. While all this sounds promising, the timing to implement it is equally pertinent because in the year 2007, the pioneers in the National Dyslexics Programme will be sitting for their UPSR. 

      At present, my son attends SK TTDI(2) which is the pilot school for the programme. He has been there since March last year. For my son, it was rather a ‘culture shock’ for him initially.  He was teased at as the ‘new’ student and for being ethnically different from the rest of his classmates. It didn’t help that he wore specially made blue-grey tinted spectacles with a‘crew-cut’ hairstyle to boot.

      Like other dyslexics who are very conscious of their condition which causes some of them to develop an inferiority complex, my son is exceptionally “sensitive”. Besides reading problems, they are easily distracted and thus, appear to have short attention span. All they need is just a slight movement to steal their focus. They do not have ‘filters’ to screen off unwanted sounds or distractions and they get carried away.  They are then penalised for things beyond their control. That’s when misunderstandings take place.

      Therefore, such students need to be reminded constantly to focus on the work given. It is always better for them to be placed in the front row of a class so that the teacher can keep an eye on them.

      Thankfully, we have very caring teachers in the Special Education section       headed by Datin Zahrah Abdullah. She is the co-ordinator who liaises with the       parents and the normal class teachers. Teething problems had been ‘ironed-out’ peacefully with her understanding and gentle ways. She has been instrumental in helping the dyslexic students to adjust, staying firmly on course with the main objective of the programme, that is, to ‘NORMALISE’ them as much as possible into the mainstream school.

      Since the launch of the programme, the Dyslexia Association (Wilayah Persekutuan) of which I am a member, had organised talks to share with teachers about dyslexia. As it turned out, such talk had been fruitful as my son’s English teacher brought out the fact that misinformation on dyslexia would have been avoided altogether had they been briefed much earlier on. She is now enlightened and supportive of the programme.

      To me, the journey to understanding dyslexia continues. I am still learning about it even though I started my research on the subject n October 2001.

      On the whole, my son has settled comfortably in school, having made friends with the other 22 dyslexic students. There is much solidarity among themselves. All of them game fully took part in the concert when the programme was officially launched. Their good performance gave them the much-needed boost in their self-confidence.

For most part, my son is coping well with most core subjects with the additional tuition and home coaching. But he still struggles with Bahasa Malaysia. Nevertheless, he is generally happy in school and he has excelled in most of the exams he took thus far. My son is now given the normal/standard report card like the rest of his friends in class. He is in his Year Two class photo shoot and is looking forward to participating in the schools’ sports day.

      My only wish is that more information should be disseminated to all involved in the programme so that they will be empowered. Once it is understood that dyslexics’ brain works differently from non-dyslexics, perhaps teachers will stop regarding them as misfits but instead work towards helping them realise their full potential.

July 13, 2007 - Posted by | Dyslexia

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