Decoding learning disabilities

Megha Bajaj

“Everybody is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live a whole life believing that it is stupid.”-Albert Einstein

In a typical classroom, there are highly motivated little humans with immense abilities to creatively think, rapidly process information, and recall what they have learnt. Every child is unique, and the world is yet to understand and put in place a system where their every need can be addressed.

One such place that could provide great learning opportunities is the school. Schools are known to be a perfect place for children to grow, learn, and play together. 

But, schools could be the most complex places too.

Imagine a classroom where all children think and learn differently. Some are visual learners, some could learn by listening, some think through pictures and some rely on movements. One concept, a variety of learners.

The complexity doesn’t end here. It magnifies when there are children with impaired functioning and difficulties in learning.

With the world moving towards embracing diversity and encouraging inclusion, one of the most challenging tasks for teachers and schools is to manage the Children With Special Needs (CWSN). The difficulties could possibly multifold in a country like India, which is diverse in terms of language, culture, and social setting. 

But, the good news is we are progressing!

In 2016, India made a historic amendment to The Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPwD) Act, by adding 21 more disabilities. India displayed inclusion in true sense. The RPwD Act, 2016, grabbed much global attention due to the inclusion of The Specific Learning Disabilities (SpLD) in the list of 21 disabilities for the very first time in the Indian history of the disability bill.

But, there are still lesser known facts about SpLD. There are many misconceptions and most importantly there is little knowledge regarding the way SpLD manifests in Indian children.

Globally, the studies around SpLD began in the early 80s.  Difficulties in reading, writing, comprehension, and math increased in mainstream classrooms. Children struggled, parents got worried, and schools were surprised with these patterns.

The scientific community began to decode learning disabilities. The questions and conclusions were many. Here are a few accepted conclusions.

 Understanding Specific Learning Disabilities

 “I want to, but I cannot.”

Specific Learning Disabilities is a neurological, language based disability affecting reading and comprehension (dyslexia), writing (dysgraphia), and math (dyscalculia). So, children struggle to process, think, listen, speak, read, and write. So, it clearly affects performance in school, thereby leading to social and emotional issues.

“Letters dance, sentences are long, I can’t remember nor can I answer.”

Children could struggle to read and write simple words such as ‘cat’, struggle with identifying letters such as ‘p and q’, face difficulty in understanding numbers, and answering questions due to lack of comprehension.

“I don’t know why it happens, I am not doing it intentionally.”

The exact cause is unknown. But, heredity and complicated pre-birth and pregnancy conditions are considered as possible factors. 

“Will it stop? Can I read and write again?”

It is a permanent condition; it has no cure. But, with interventions, children can be taught skills to decode and life skills to secure their emotional being.

No tablet or medication can cure learning disabilities. Instead, early identification and evidence based interventions can make  them more manageable. SpLD is known as ‘Hidden Handicap’, because it cannot be easily identified or seen. Children seem to struggle with decoding letters, numbers, sentences, and pictures, but demonstrate amazing creative abilities.

SpLD is not caused by economic disadvantage, environmental factors, or cultural differences. There is no rich and poor drama here!

“I have been struggling to remember colours, shapes, months, and weeks…”

The symptoms of SpLD could be identified during the early years, such as in preschool where children could struggle with identification and retention of basic concepts such as colours. Research suggests a strong identification and screening process right at preschool between three to five years of age to help children better.

Language proficiency issue or learning disability?

One of the biggest challenges in identifying pure cases with SpLD is language proficiency.

Every child in India speaks a minimum of two languages. We are multilingual!

Majority of schools have English as their medium of instruction, but children struggle to converse in English. English, for many, is a second or third language. Hence, when children are assessed for SpLD, they struggle to perform on the tests due to lack of language proficiency rather than showing pure SpLD symptoms. These tests are internationally designed, not based on the Indian population due to which, there is a sheer possibility of over and incorrect diagnosis!

Children may not have SpLD, instead they could be struggling with English language proficiency. There is a thin line of difference; psychologists have to be extremely observant and must engage in critical evaluation. We need more Indian tools suitable for the Indian population for objective diagnosis. The responsibility is on the professionals and the school systems today to avoid diagnosis and focus on structured actions!

 What do we do?

The key factors in managing SpLD are:

1. Early identification, as early as in preschool.

2. The most powerful approach is to begin early intervention. The idea is to ‘just start teaching them differently than diagnosing them first!’ Experts advise to sta applying proven methods known as Evidence Based Interventions and focus on developing skills rather than curriculum. The idea is to make them love reading, writing, and math!

3. An empathetic and considerate school environment where special educators, psychologists offer support rather than chucking the child out! The treatment is a collaborative approach.

4. To create massive awareness programs for parents and the community to support and create an enriching place to thrive.

5. Alternate evaluation systems rather than the usual overwhelming exam methods.

With all said and done, India is marching towards inclusion, awareness is increasing, schools are embracing and children are being accommodated. There is a lot to do, we have finally begun!

When Agatha Christie’s books were sold in millions worldwide, people read her work. Little did they know that she struggled with dysgraphia and hence dictated all her novels.

They say the world continues to be beautiful for just two reasons- children and chocolates! Children deserve a great learning environment and should be known for their uniqueness despite challenges. They need to be given tools. Tools to empower themselves, to survive despite the odds and view this world as a happy place!

Children are beyond their disabilities, it is just that they need a world that can understand them differently.

The writer is a bestselling author of several books, including, The Breakthrough by Rupa Publications. She was awarded as The 50 Most Influential Authors by Delhi Wire. She has also been invited as a Speaker for several MNCs like Amazon, Pfizer, and for meditation seminars in San Francisco and New Jersey. Her company WoW (Wonders of Wordsconducts notable programs like the WoW Online Writing and Healing Workshop as well as WoW 3 Ls (Language + Life + Leadership Skills) Program which is a life skills-based curriculum that has reached 1,00,000 plus students. Her thoughts as an educator and mentor have also been published on several notable platforms. She can be reached at

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