The Growing Concern of Dyslexia in the Asian Population: Addressing the Need for Awareness and Support
How U.S and Asia Differ in Dyslexia Approach
Dyslexia, a common neurodevelopmental condition that interferes with a person’s ability to read, is said to be present in at least 20% of people regardless of their nationality. A person with dyslexia experiences difficulties involving reading and spelling but is not diagnosed with sensory impairment, brain damage, or environmental deprivation. In fact, dyslexics have normal intelligence level (Catts & Kamhi, 2005; McBride-Chang, 1995, as cited in Chung et al., 2010).
In the U.S., there is an estimation that dyslexia can be found in 20% of the population and a federal law was established to ensure that schools will help students with learning differences enjoy equal access to education. More research about dyslexia assessment and intervention in the U.S. are continuously being conducted, with the goal of raising more awareness among Americans that dyslexia is not a form of laziness or stupidity and early interventions are really necessary.
This is not the case in other parts of the world, especially in Asia. There is still no strong support for Asian dyslexics as dyslexia assessment is still lacking. One main reason why there is an absence of appropriate dyslexia assessment in Asian countries is that according to the UNESCO MGIEP, dyslexia assessment is only often restricted to English language. This is a big issue since some Asian countries have their own writing system aside from the standard English which is phonemic and alphabetic. For instance, in China, their writing system is morphosyllabic while the Hindi writing system in India is alpha-syllabic. These variations make the cognitive deficits linked to reading and spelling struggles more complicated than those experienced by the Western world. According to Guinevere Eden of Georgetown University (as cited in Pilcher, 2004), the neural basis of reading is complex and differs depending on the nature of the writing system.
There is a need for visual-orthographic skills, rapid naming skills, morphological awareness, and verbal working memory to be examined, especially in China. This is because the Chinese writing system consists of various characters, resulting in what seems to be a bigger struggle for Chinese dyslexics as they should also familiarize themselves with the rules in structuring Chinese characters. Additionally, they should be able to identify the Chinese characters from numerous pseudo-characters, non-characters, and visual symbols (Chung et al., 2010).
Common Reason Why Some Asians Hold Back from Getting Tested
Culture plays a big role as to why a lot of dyslexic Asians go undiagnosed or are not aware of the importance of assessments and interventions. Education is highly valued in Asian countries and teachers, particularly in China, are known for receiving the highest level of public respect. While this kind of mindset is good, there are still some negative outcomes resulting from it.
Since teachers and the schools in general are being relied on so much, the Chinese people often do not question or doubt the system. According to Dr. Lusa Lo, “Even a parent who senses that a child has special needs often hesitates to reach out to the school, fearing a loss of face for the whole family” (Lum, 2010, para.6). Fearing that others or their own relatives might criticize them, the chance to get tested and be given help becomes less likely to be achieved.
Asians think of education as their main key to success and failure to study and finish a degree will lead to disappointment of parents and in some cases, even bigger problems in the family. This kind of pressure often causes a lot of Asian students to study even harder, bearing in mind that they should perform well in school and get good grades. If they don’t, chances are that they will be reprimanded.
Because of high expectations and pressure to be good at school, students who struggle to read and spell often feel anxious and do not have a sense of belonging because they are easily tagged as lazy or slow. The sad thing is even their parents sometimes think the same way about them, without looking first for other reasons or possibilities as to why their child behaves like that. With more people quickly jumping into this false assumption, it is no surprise that dyslexia is not a common term in Asian countries.
In mainland China, many people do not know what dyslexia is. While dyslexia has been highly studied in Western countries,it hasn’t gained traction in China; that is why there is still a low level of awareness among Chinese people and little to no support for dyslexics.
In India, the Department of Biotechnology estimates that dyslexia can be found in 10% of their population as of 2015. Like in China, there is not enough public awareness about this specific learning difference.
Moreover, many people in India view learning disabilities or differences as mental illnesses, resulting in greater fear of people to get tested and come out as a dyslexic.
Indians are also known for their competitiveness in education. Schools in India put too much emphasis on textbook studies instead of focusing on students’ skills. And since learners with dyslexia are at a great disadvantage in this kind of setup, many schools simply tag them as badly behaved and hopeless, just like the situation of Chinese dyslexic students.
However, unlike in mainland China, more researchers and even some members of the film industry are trying to raise awareness regarding dyslexia and the needed support for dyslexics. There was even a movie entitled “Taara Zameen Par” that tells the story of a dyslexic boy who was sent to a boarding school because of his poor academic performance and it was his parents’ way of disciplining him.
Unfortunately, these are still not enough . More continued efforts are needed because the level of awareness is still low. A lot of Indian schools do not have programs that can accommodate the needs of children with learning disabilities. There is also no proper training for teachers in dealing with the issue. There are very few private schools that offer special education, and even if there were, most Indian families still could not afford them because the costs are extremely high.
Ending the Stigma and Addressing the Problem Scientifically
There is a serious “Dyslexia Stigma” present in Asian population and it dramatically hinders the opportunity of many individuals to find out their real condition and get the help they need. There is also a further demand for researchers to study dyslexia assessments based on specific Asian writing systems to better understand and address the situations of Asian dyslexics.
People with dyslexia, regardless of the country they live in, would benefit from not being treated as an outcast and left on their own to struggle. These people should enjoy living a normal life despite their difficulties in doing some tasks. They must be fully understood, loved and supported by their own family so they will not fall into the pit of depression.
Dyslexics need structured and systematic educational approaches and techniques that are really tailored for them. They need help from teachers or experts with professional knowledge and experience in multisensory-structured language approach. Most importantly, early detection must be pushed to prevent self-esteem problems and help the child to have a more positive attitude that can contribute to success. These things will only be accessible to Asians once there is enough awareness and acceptance of the entire society, especially the government.
Dyslexia is not a mental illness nor a determinant of a person’s intelligence. It is a life-long learning difference that requires proper help as well as support so people who have it can learn to read, write and experience a successful life that they deserve.
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Jess Arce is a homeschool mom of four, a tutor for children & adults who struggle with Dyslexia & Dysgraphia and an all around entrepreneur. She is passionate about helping others understand dyslexia.