When it comes to dyslexia, there is no shortage of stigma in India. Revealing testimonies from sufferers highlight how often the problem is handled poorly – if it is handled at all.
“I felt like the stupidest person in the world growing up,” one sufferer said. “My parents and teachers were terrible to me because I couldn’t read properly. When I got diagnosed, they told me I finally had an excuse for my ‘stupidity’.”
Another recounted how teachers at their boarding school said they “needed to come up with an explanation” for why they “messed everything up while writing.” If they didn’t, they would “be sent to the PT teacher who beat boys up.”
Even as awareness of mental health and learning disabilities increases in India, dyslexics continue to face ridicule and insensitivity. Even from their Prime Minister.
“An engineering student explained to the Prime Minister a project she was developing that would help dyslexic children in school. The Prime Minister interrupted her to quip “will this programme work for a forty-to-fifty year-old child too?”
At an event called ‘Smart India Hackathon’, Prime Minister Modi was participating in a question-and-answer session with attendees. An engineering student explained to the Prime Minister a project she was developing that would help dyslexic children in school. The Prime Minister interrupted her to quip “will this programme work for a forty-to-fifty year-old child too?” He then laughed.
Modi is believed to have been referring to his political rival, Indian National Congress (INC) leader Rahul Gandhi. Modi has often referred to Gandhi as ‘Pappu’ – suggesting that he is of low intelligence. His remark was met with laughter and applause.
When the student responded in the affirmative, the Prime Minister joked “then that will make the mothers of such children very happy”. Many took this a thinly veiled nod to Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi’s mother.
“The controversy shows that, when the Prime Minister is comfortable using dyslexia to take a shot at a political opponent – and the audience will applaud such a remark – there is a broader national stigma”
The incident has provoked widespread outrage and led to calls for the Prime Minister to apologise. The rancour is easy to understand.
The controversy shows that, when the Prime Minister is comfortable using dyslexia to take a shot at a political opponent – and the audience will applaud such a remark – there is a broader national stigma.
The extent to which this is true – not only of dyslexia but many neurodevelopmental disorders and mental health conditions – has often been laid bare. It also manifests in the difficulty that is often faced in diagnosing and treating the condition.
“India is home to almost 35 million youths with dyslexia…however, the figure is likely to be much higher and undiagnosed”
As per 2015 estimates, India is home to almost 35 million youth with dyslexia, representing a tenth of the country’s schoolchildren. According to child psychologist Dr Roma Kumar, however, the figure is likely to be much higher and undiagnosed.
“In the metro cities, teachers and parents are a little sensitised, but in smaller towns and rural areas, there is very little awareness,” Dr Kumar said. “We don’t have the tools to identify the children with learning difficulties in government schools, smaller towns and villages.”
Difficulties in diagnosing and helping those who suffer from dyslexia are present across the spectrum of neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs). NDDs refer to a broad category of conditions which affect approximately one in eight Indian children and include learning disabilities such as dyslexia, as well as conditions ranging from autistic spectrum disorder to cerebral palsy.
“Those who suffer from mental health conditions broadly are undeserved in India – adults and children alike. With 150 million Indians in need of mental health treatment, but only a tenth able to avail it, it is clear India is facing serious issues”
Accessing help for these conditions is often a struggle, particularly – as Dr Kumar notes – if sufferers live in rural areas where access to healthcare is broadly limited. While steps such as the opening of a centre devoted to NDDs at the All India Institute of Medicines (AIIMS) last year are welcome, there is a nationwide, pervasive shortfall of both facilities and personnel which stands in the way of those with NDDs in their efforts to seek help managing their condition.
Those who suffer from mental health conditions broadly are underserved in India – adults and children alike. With 150 million Indians in need of mental health treatment, but only a tenth able to avail it, it is clear India is facing serious issues grappling with its silent crisis.
Stigma only furthers the difficulties sufferers have. Prevalent attitudes that those with mental health conditions and NDDs are ‘crazy’ and ‘retarded’ are not going to dissipate if, of all people, the Prime Minister seems to partake in sharing and expressing them.
The focus must not be on exploiting India’s burden of mental health conditions and NDDs for the sake of playing politics, but rather looking towards ensuring that they can access the support they need. It must be remembered that the conditions themselves are the burden. The sufferers themselves are not.