- Nelum Wijayasekara on raising awareness about dyslexia and showcasing children’s talents
By Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya
In March this year, LinkedIn recognised dyslexic thinking as a vital skill, and stated that it matches with skills needed for the future as defined by the World Economic Forum, and also with the top ten skills workplaces need today. In order to raise awareness about the out-of-box thinking dyslexic persons have, as well as the struggles they face, an art-and-craft exhibition is being organised next month, titled “The Power of Dyslexic Thinking”.
The exhibition is being organised by Nhance and The Winning Underdogs, with Nhance Director Nelum Wijayasekara and The Winning Underdogs Founder Shaakya Nathavitharana acting as Co-Chairs of the organising committee. Wijayasekara joined The Morning Brunch to share more details about the exhibition, as well as the importance of raising awareness about dyslexia.
They are targeting mid-October for the exhibition, since the month begins with Children’s Day and is also Dyslexia Awareness Month. “In other countries, they use this month to create a lot of awareness in the community, among parents, but in Sri Lanka, I don’t think any kind of event has officially been conducted to raise awareness for dyslexia,” she said.
The organisers hope to display the works of 20-30 children, with a maximum capacity of 50 children. “What we hope is that we will be able to make an impact even on one child’s life, giving them the confidence to come forward and showcase their talents. We also want to show that, yes, dyslexia causes problems, it’s a learning disability, but then along with that come a whole lot of talents and gifts.”
Hence the name of the event, with which the organisers want to encourage children with dyslexia to identify and sharpen their skills, spread the message among parents, and hopefully, reach schools and teachers to raise awareness.
Wijayasekara’s interest in and dedication towards raising awareness about dyslexia comes through her personal struggles with it. Her second child, Aaron, was diagnosed with dyslexia three years ago, but they identified him as being dyslexic when he was very small. Despite an 18-year career in teaching, Wijayasekara admitted that she still struggled when helping or supporting her son.
In 2019, Wijayasekara left full-time school education in hopes of establishing her own institute, promoting activity-based learning and catering to the unique needs of each child. However, these plans were delayed with the Covid-19 pandemic.
The pandemic also brought along online education, and as his education went fully online, Aaron’s struggles worsened, so Wijayasekara decided to home-school all three of her children. This worked well for Aaron, who was really happy and loved learning. Wijayasekara shared that it was during lockdown that Aaron’s artistic talent surfaced.
By this time, Aaron had a YouTube channel, where he shared his fascination with Legos, and his parents suggested he use this platform to talk about some of his struggles with dyslexia.
“He took some time to agree, because he wanted to think about it. Then finally, one day he said, ‘okay let’s do it’, and he shared a small video about what dyslexia meant to him and his struggles in school. We shared it among our friends and Facebook channels and it got a lot of traction – more than we expected.”
The YouTube channel “Aaron’s journey with dyslexia” has gained 130 subscribers and over 3,000 views since it was created in February.
When a lot of parents started approaching them with questions and advice, Wijayasekara decided to start a Facebook support group, named Dyslexia Sri Lanka, for parents, which was the first step of this whole process. Dyslexia Sri Lanka has over 70 members and continues to grow.
When Aaron made a video about his art, a friend suggested organising an exhibition with Aaron’s work, as well as those of other children.
Need for awareness
One key aspect that Wijayasekara kept emphasising was how a lack of awareness as well as social stigma around disabilities makes parents feel isolated and alone in their struggles.
“In the Sri Lankan community, we are very reluctant to admit or openly speak about our children’s struggles, especially when it comes to something like this, where it is not that well known, but is a disability. It’s a learning disability but as soon as you attach that word disability, parents are very reluctant to accept that their child has it and also to speak about it openly.”
She went on to explain that most members of the support group approach her personally, whether it is to ask questions, share their worries, or about what worked and what didn’t. However, the group is evolving, Wijayasekara said.
“We have actually been lucky enough to have a few members who have adult or grown-up children who have completed school. Their experiences are very useful to parents who have younger kids,” she said, explaining that if children don’t perform well academically, parents worry about their futures. With the support group, parents are able to see that there are children with dyslexia who have made it in the world, and not just in Western countries, but in Sri Lanka.
Wijayasekara went on to say that statistically, one in five children, or 10-30% of the population, has dyslexia. These are global statistics, which Sri Lanka lacks. However, in the local context, only one student in every grade may know they have dyslexia.
“Parents feel very alone, because they are fighting with the school for their children alone, so many of them said the support group made them realise that there are other parents out there who are having this same struggle.”
Since the support group is for parents, they are hoping to reach children with “The Power of Dyslexia” exhibition. Not only will children be given the opportunity to showcase their talents, but activities will also be organised to encourage engagement and interaction.
Wijayasekara is trying to build a network of teachers as well, but said they need a lot of support to do this on a national level. “We have a lot to do with teachers and the entire education system, so hopefully this would have a ripple effect, where we are able to reach those stakeholders also,” she added.
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia belongs to the category of learning disabilities and is recognised by the World Health Organisation and accepted globally as a disability, stated Nhance Director and ‘The Power of Dyslexic Thinking’ Organising Committee Co-Chair Nelum Wijayasekara, adding there are many things that affect different learning aspects. “Dyslexia is the most prominent and most common one, because if a child can’t read, that means their entire learning process is halted, especially in our kind of education system where we are very examination-focused.”
A dyslexic child will be unable to read at the same level as their peers, which makes it difficult for them to keep up with a lesson. Their writing will also be affected. Despite usually being talented and brilliant, these children may shut down and get quiet in classes so they go unnoticed in class or may act out and get labelled as stubborn. One of the biggest worries a dyslexic child may have is of being told to read something out loud to the class. This can lead to various behavioural issues as well.
However, there are accepted accommodations or support a dyslexic child can be provided with in schools and even at examinations.