Silver linings

A different way with words

I was scrolling down messages on social media one evening when something caught my eye. Snuggled between brainless forwarded posts and silly memes was a line which said “I am dyslexic.” Strangely it went unnoticed and no one bothered to comment on it, except one perceptive pediatrician who asked the sender if he was like Ishaan in Taare Zameen Par.

It kept my mind busy that night. Was he simply joking? Or was it actually true? After all, given my penchant for spotting grammatical errors, I had never once in the last two years seen him make a terrible spelling mistake. He had always come across to me as both sensible and sensitive. And then this man was a professional— a specialist doctor working abroad. By the next day I had decided to confront him about his statement. What I heard was so inspiring, that I have to share it.

My friend had loads of trouble in school. He says that he always failed spelling tests— “never got more than 5 out of 20”. He had trouble reading and writing. He took ages to finish homework. Since he lived in a joint family, one of his uncles wrote his homework for him. He says that he has read only three novels in his entire life. “When my sister finished reading books in three days, it took me months to finish one novel,” he reveals.  There was a time when he seriously contemplated giving up higher education altogether. You can imagine the dents the system had made in his self-esteem. But his family and peer pressure kept him going. And when he who was at the bottom of his class, managed to clear the medical entrance examination, his entire school was surprised.

My friend went on to say that he diagnosed himself just 5 months ago.  Even though both his parents were teachers, his condition went undiagnosed for all these decades.  It was only when his daughter was being assessed for dyslexia, that he realized that he could have ticked most of the boxes himself. “That day I sort of reinvented myself. Everything fell in place. The dots added up.” he says.

Dyslexia is a common condition where people have difficulty in recognising sounds, letters and words. As a result, routine activities such as reading, writing and spelling pose significant challenges. One in 10 people have dyslexia and it runs in families. Unlike other learning disabilities, there is no dearth of intelligence with dyslexia. These minds are wired differently, and they process information in lateral ways. They end up with other strengths such as critical thinking, creativity and communication skills. Unfortunately our education systems are designed in very standard ways, where there is no flexibility for people who are wired differently. Our schools judge all children by the same archaic parameters, and their real potential often goes unrecognized by teachers, who are not trained to support such students.

So how did my friend beat our education system and emerge on the top rung of the professional ladder despite his obvious disadvantage? He said having to choose answers from multiple choice questions in the entrance examination helped. Had it been a written examination, he would not have succeeded. Once in medicine, he had no difficulty listening to lectures. Dyslexics learn well by the auditory mode. But if a lecturer was the kind who wrote on the board, he struggled to read. “By the time I figured the letters of the alphabet in the first line, the lecturer would have written three more lines!” he laughs. He had enormous difficulty reading thick medical textbooks and says he avoided visiting the library. “I could only read two pages at a stretch. I needed a break after that.” he says. But then, he began to select books which had lots of diagrams, flow charts and pictures. He says he can still remember diagrams on pages of books — his visual memory is excellent. He studied by drawing diagrams and wrote his papers similarly. Vivas were a breeze as he was always a good communicator. After his medical training in India, he emigrated to the UK where he excelled in all his examinations. Their examination system suited him better. They had OSCEs (objective structured clinical examinations) which required minimum writing, and vivas, and thus he sailed through. It was amazing to hear his story.

Dyslexia is a lifelong condition. So how does my friend cope with these things daily? Where does he get stuck? “I cannot remember dates or days. I have to keep asking my patients what date it is everyday.” he says. “So I have now resorted to using a date stamp which I set every morning.” I asked him how he manages to be so active on social media. “Autocorrect helps tremendously,” he says, “And then there is no dearth of emoticons for bad spellers!” he chuckles. “I have trouble spelling common drugs, even though I write them daily.” he confesses. “So I have a printed sheet in front of me where I copy spellings in order to be correct. But in this day and age of electronic prescriptions, things are much easier.” He relies a lot on electronic data records, which makes him far more efficient.

As I hear his remarkable story, I want to salute the spirit of this doctor. “If people support dyslexics until they are 20 years of age, I think they can fly. I will ensure that my daughter is supported until she flies!” he says proudly. As Richard Branson said: “It’s time we all understand dyslexia properly as a different way of thinking —not a disadvantage.”

I hope other children and parents are inspired by this man’s never-say-die spirit. More strength to my courageous friend.

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