DAGUA – At a rural evangelical church secondary school in East Sepik, there was a particular student who, despite her best attempt at learning, just could not get things right.
She would sit at the back of the classroom, attentive and well behaved, but, when it came to testing and scores, she was always at the bottom.
Subject teachers would complain, scratch their heads and ask why she couldn’t understand and perform like her classmates. After two years of sitting inside the classroom without any special help, the student failed all her Grade 10 exams and disappeared for good.
Just as in schools around the world, Papua New Guinea has dyslexic students but, because of the ignorance of authorities and teachers, they are not adequately catered for.
Some years later after the event I just described, while I was sitting through an Indian produced movie, ‘Like stars on earth’, it struck me that the events portrayed were similar to the experience of the student at that rural school.
The lead character in the film also had difficulties learning and writing. And like the female student of my experience, the character in the movie was also called “dumb” and “a waste of time and money”.
This 2007 movie explores the life of a boy, Ishaan Awasthi, who has learning difficulties. He performs poorly in tests, his writing is illegible, he is disobedient and easily distracted and cannot be understood by family and friends.
As a result it is no surprise that he has very low self-esteem.
But things improve for Ishaan when his art teacher takes an interest in him and is able to identify his problem and help him to overcome his learning difficulties.
The teacher’s empathy and willingness to help Ishaan find meaning and ease his learning difficulties struck at my heart and my mind. The film opened my eyes to the learning disability called “dyslexia”.
Recalling my time at that rural school, I would have done more to help the student if only I had known about dyslexia and the stigma that goes with it.
Dyslexia is a learning disability that presents difficulties in acquiring and processing language. It’s seen particularly in lack of proficiency in reading, spelling, and writing.
It is an “invisible” disability that causes sufferers to feel isolated and inadequate. In short, it’s a struggle for sufferers.
Currently, there is no information or articles on dyslexia available for Papua New Guinea. There exists a great need for knowledge of this disability especially in the school system. But most people are not even aware of it.
The National Department of Education has no policy to cater for dyslexics. Teachers in the education system are ignorant of it. And, because of this, are unwilling to put in the extra time to help dyslexics in the classroom.
Parents also are ignorant and cannot understand why their child is underperforming and often disruptive.
It is likely that some of the students we characterise as “slow learners” are dyslexic. Most of these young people flop at school and are seen as failures or drop-outs.
Papua New Guinea is fortunate to have organisations that help people with physical disabilities like the Catholic Church-run Special Education Resource Centres which include the Callan Service and Mt Sion Blind Centre.
These are important organisations that play a major role in training and integrating people with physical disabilities back into the communities.
Dyslexia, on the other hand, affects people who have no outward disabilities. It is invisible and sufferers are left to fend for themselves in life.
Dyslexia cannot be cured, but sufferers can be helped to overcome their disability and live normal lives.
We certainly need more awareness of dyslexia and other related learning disorders in Papua New Guinea.