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.
Though both genders are equally susceptible, girls are less likely than boys to make a scene if they can't do an assignment in class. This is why boys are tested for dyslexia more frequently, and are diagnosed more often, even though girls are as likely to be afflicted.
It may not be immediately obvious to most of us that, because written words have no innate meaning, the capacity to read is therefore not an innate one. Instead, it has to be acquired.
Written words are just symbols accompanied by a code of sounds that must be learnt for use in decoding the written symbol.
To read, one must relate the specific written symbols in a language to their sounds. For example, to read the English word "bat", I must be able to hear the sounds of b-aaaa-t and link these three sounds to the written letters, b-a-t. Then I must recognise that these symbols refer to those sounds. And I must see that, together, they mean the flat-fronted wooden blade with a cane handle, used to strike a cricket ball.
While written words have no intrinsic meaning, readers are those who have acquired the ability to map their associated sounds to their specific meanings.
We who read in English have learnt to decode its words quickly. But this is precisely what the dyslexic reader cannot do: He cannot link the letters to the sounds in English as easily as the rest of us.
He can't decode as quickly, so he needs more time. But you may ask if he really deserves more time when doing class assignments or taking exams.
One may ask if someone like Mr Sam Tan, who did well enough academically to enter NUS, deserves extra time. Just because his reading was not as smooth as the top boy or girl in his class should not mean he deserved more time. If he did, wouldn't everyone also be "disabled" in comparison with the best-in-class?
The problem with such an argument is that it fails to see that dyslexia is a shortfall in learning which can lead to under-achievement, compared to that which can be expected with an individual's level of intelligence and ability.
No one would call my nephew a "disabled" football player just because he isn't as good as Fandi Ahmad. That kid still wouldn't beat Fandi in a tackle even if Fandi were to kick the ball with only his left leg. Yet my nephew is not under-achieving, but only achieving what his innate football abilities permit. He has no disability requiring an accommodation of some sort. Even if he is given help, he still won't be able to beat Fandi.
By contrast, a small accommodation - like an extra 30 minutes for the English paper - could make a dyslexic Sam Tan a competitive exam candidate, who would otherwise under-achieve.
Conversely, giving a non-dyslexic the extra 30 minutes would not raise his scores dramatically. So where a person greatly benefits from a little help, there is likely a disability, like dyslexia, involved.
Exams have little to do with real life, of course, but in Singapore, exams are gatekeepers. If dyslexics are not accommodated in taking exams, and if that causes them to fail to make the cut for university entrance, then they would be denied certain life opportunities open to those with a degree. That would be quite unfair.
Even at work, giving a dyslexic lawyer, say, more time to prepare his cases would help him achieve the results he is capable of, given his innate abilities. There is no reason to suspect that lawyers who read faster are more insightful.
In sum, if a little accommodation goes a long way, then that is precisely what a fair society ought to be giving its dyslexics.
This article was first published on December 7, 2014.
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