Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Family: Making a difference to dyslexics

Qaisra Nazeer Dhillon’s passion to better the lot of children deemed lazy and stupid is admirable, writes MEENA SREENIVASAN

QAISRA Nazeer Dhillon, a specialist teacher attached to Dyslexia Action United Kingdom, is one determined woman when it comes to advocating a better understanding of dyslexia in Malaysia.

Being a parent and teacher herself, her heart reaches out not only to children and students who are dyslexic but also to parents who are faced with the dilemma of not having a proper support system to help their children affected by dyslexia.

“It’s very simple why I am so intent about creating awareness on this disorder. Not many people are aware that it can be beaten. I used to teach language and literature before I chose to work in the field of dyslexia. “When I decided to continue my professional development in the field of teaching (this is a concept of continuous professional development (CPD) ), I decided to explore on what next I could do better. “I had two choices; either to pursue my PhD in literature or go into the special needs training. I chose dyslexia as the field to specialise in. I want to be able to make a difference in somebody’s life,” says the 43-year old, who resides in the UK.
Married with three children, Qaisra completed her TESOL (teaching of English to speakers of other languages) from Trinity College London and then went on to pursue her Masters Degree in English Language and Literature. She completed her post graduate-level qualification in Specific Learning Difficulties from the University of York and was trained by Dyslexia Action Training Department UK. Currently, she is studying for Competence in Educational Testing accredited by British Psychology Society. If Qaisra could have her way, she would want the legislation in this country to change and start recognising dyslexia as a learning difficulty to develop a full-fledged support system in the mainstream schools here. “I am going to say it loud and clear that dyslexia does very much exist and it is a condition where there should be help for every child in every state school in Malaysia. “So, what the government should do is to make sure that every teacher gets some basic training to recognise it. What I am referring to here is a full-fledged support system. We need to recognise it at the federal level. If we don’t, we will lose out on the whole generation of children who will be condemned as lazy, stupid and dumb.” She says it is sad and disturbing that parents of dyslexic children don’t even know their child is dyslexic because most of them are in denial. “All they can ask and wonder about is, ’Why is my child not getting an ’A’ in his exams?’ Well, the underlying issue here is they end up thinking their child is just lazy or slacking when actually he or she could be dyslexic and that they could be seeking help for their child’s learning disability,” she explains.

There are signs and symptoms that could be pointers, although they vary from individual to individual. In some cases, it might be severe and in others, mild. Although dyslexia is 90 per cent a genetic disorder, 10 per cent is acquired, maybe through a difficult pregnancy. But it is mostly passed down from the male genes. Sixty per cent is from the father’s genes while 40 per cent is from the mother, Qaisra says. Sometimes, parents need to be assessed as well.

“Dyslexia or related specific difficulties such as ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are actually signs of frustration from the child and he doesn’t know what to do because he cannot understand what is being taught.
“What do you expect the child to do? In school, he is faced with pressure and when he comes home, there is pressure again as to why he is not performing in school. So how can you expect a seven or eight-year old child to deal with academic or social expectations when he has a learning difficulty in the first place?” Qaisra reveals that when working with dyslexics, you only see progression, and in her experience, the majority of dyslexics have a higher IQ (intelligence quotient) and intelligence level than normal people. “You are dealing with intelligent individuals who do not know how to cope with academic pressure. Try putting yourself in their shoes for just one day. For example, this is what happened when I was teaching a young girl. She looked up at the classroom blackboard, and by the time she copied the word from the board onto her exercise book, the word changed. What happened was that she got lost in the process because the working memory was weak. The ’P’ became a ’T’ by the time she wrote it”.

“Instead of parents labelling their child as stupid or slow, they have to take a stand and do something to assess their children if they feel something is amiss. Do they want a future for their child or do they just want an alter ego?” Qaisra feels that there’s just not enough awareness about dyslexia in Malaysia and it is considered a social taboo to even get their child assessed by an educational psychologist. And because people tend to think it is a mental problem or sickness, they usually turn to a psychiatrist, neurosurgeon or a paediatrician. “You don’t need to go anywhere else except to two people who can tell if your child is dyslexic — an educational psychologist (not a psychiatrist), who is trained to assess dyslexia, or a teacher like myself who has a practicing licence to assess children with dyslexia.” A child with dyslexia will be put through a test to evaluate his general ability and attainment — whether he is achieving according to his ability — and also other tests to determine if it is a literary problem. Being a slow learner and being dyslexic are two different things. Although dyslexia cannot be cured, it can be overcome and beaten.

“Cure is not the word to be used because it is not an illness. But can you beat dyslexia, you ask? Well, it is a definite yes! There are no right pointers and parents should not download those tests from the Internet, fill in and tick boxes to diagnose if their child is dyslexic. That is so wrong. Please go to the right specialist to determine this,” she insists.
As literacy skills are so strongly emphasised during the schooling process, dyslexic children experience a great deal of failure which can easily lower their self-esteem. The effect can make them feel that they must be stupid. This is why it is important for dyslexic children to receive as much praise, credits and certificates as the other children. To complete a piece of written work in class is twice as hard as for a non-dyslexic child. It is also important for a dyslexic child to have art, crafts, physical education and sports during their week in school, as these are the only areas in which they may excel and experience a feeling of satisfaction in learning. Having to learn a foreign language like French is a virtual impossibility for a dyslexic child.

It is an established fact that 10 percent of the world population is dyslexic. You can expect at least three kids to have some sort or some level of dyslexia. In Asian countries, dyslexia awareness is at least 20 years behind that of western countries.

Qaisra’s worst fear is that parents of dyslexic children will not be able to help develop their child’s personality and that they equate qualifications with education. “A piece of paper qualification may not necessarily educate you. Look at Bill Gates. Although he reached Harvard University, he was still a dropout — but can anyone meet his success?” To create awareness on dyslexia, Qaisra is conducting a workshop entitled, Dyslexia Awareness Seminar, for those who would want to know more about dyslexia. They could be parents, teachers, paediatricians or even children themselves. Participants will not only gain a better understanding of dyslexia, be able to identify signs and also learn strategies to help their child or student cope.

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