SINGAPORE - Recently, Mr Sam Tan revealed how growing up with mild dyslexia made mastering English difficult for him. Launching the Embrace Dyslexia campaign, the Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth recounted how his mother would cane him for getting bad grades in English.
His learning disability was finally recognised while he was a student at the National University of Singapore.
The campaign he launched, run by the Dyslexia Association of Singapore, aims to heighten awareness of this condition that affects an estimated half a million people here.
First recognised in 1896 by a British doctor, the dyslexic's reading ability is lower than that required to function optimally in a literate society.
In dyslexia, the brain's reading area is hard-wired such that the person cannot translate images of words with their associated sounds into comprehensible language. The old name for dyslexia was "word blindness", pointing to the person's diminished capacity to read despite having normal vision, hearing and intelligence.
There is no cure, but dyslexics can do well in school with extra tutoring and if they are given extra time with assignments and exams since they read and process what they have read more slowly.
Of course, not all dyslexics suffer to the same degree, so not all will need exactly the same kind of accommodation. If Mr Tan had mild dyslexia, Albert Einstein had quite a severe form of it.
The 1999 book, Einstein: Visionary Scientist, relates how the genius' parents thought he might be mildly retarded. He was slow in learning to speak and his primary school principal said he would never succeed at anything.
In secondary school, he aced maths but failed biology, chemistry and French. This school principal was so impressed with Einstein's maths ability "that he offered to accept Albert the following year without exams".
A 1995 book, Why Are You Calling Me LD?, relates how United States General George Patton could not read even at age 12: "A special reader worked with him through all his time at West Point." (LD stands for learning disabled.)
So these famous dyslexics and others achieved success in school with an individualised programme to accommodate their disability.
Conversely, dyslexics who have succeeded without such help may well have mild dyslexia. Since the degree of dyslexia varies, these contrarian success stories should not be used to argue the case that no dyslexic deserves to be accommodated.
Since 1983, scientists at Yale University have been conducting a landmark study of dyslexics, tracking 445 kindergarten pupils to this very day. With 90 per cent still in the study, the study has shown that up to 20 per cent of children in school might be affected.