COVID-19 exposed the critical needs of dyslexic students in JaFriday, October 16, 2020
The novel coronavirus pandemic has forced educational institutions at all levels in Jamaica to face a new normal that encompasses the learning processes, especially for students with learning difficulties such as dyslexia. The global decision to close schools and transition to virtual and distance learning has exposed the critical and urgent need for resources to assist effectively dyslexic students. Already struggling with learning difficulties and poverty, dyslexic students from low-income families are among the hardest hit during these times of uncertainty.
According to research, dyslexia is a learning difference that specifically impairs a person's ability to read, spell, write, and speak. It is a condition present from birth, often generational, and cannot be prevented or cured. Some evidence suggests that between five per cent to 10 per cent of the world's population is dyslexic, affecting people from all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, and it is gender-neutral. Dyslexia ranges from mild to severe, and many cases students who have dyslexia are usually more creative with average and above-average intelligence.
Dyslexia is a word that has been in use for over 100 years and has a long scientific, clinical, and educational history. Nevertheless, the term is relatively new in the Jamaican education sector. Over the past several years, many countries across the world have implemented laws for dyslexia accommodations. Presently, over 45 states in America already passed dyslexia legislation. These laws are the result of related groups and organisations, passionate parents, and dedicated teachers. They advocated for awareness, effective intervention, classroom accommodations, teaching strategies, funding for early screening, professional development, and efficient resources.
The spread of the virus across the globe — first identified late 2019 in Wuhan, China — has presented an immediate crisis and a lasting imprint on the Jamaican education sector. Not only has it changed our world drastically, it has also left most students struggling to adapt. The Jamaican public school system, that was already ill-equipped to deal with dyslexic students, is terribly short-handed of the necessary assistive technology (AT) devices, software, or equipment to assist them with virtual and distance learning.
In today's world, technology has made revolutionary changes in the lives of dyslexic students. AT such as computers, laptops, tablets, mobile phones, e-readers, personal FM listening systems, electronic maths worksheets, digital notepad, phonics library, and proofreading software help them organise time, excel, and overcome challenges. Without them these students cannot thoroughly demonstrate their skills and knowledge and are at greater risk of falling behind in their education.
Although the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information (MOEYI) said that they have in place a Special Education Unit, mainly makes provisions for physical and learning disabilities, hearing and visual impairments, and gifted and talented students, there is no provision or direct support for dyslexia, which is a specific learning disability. Dyslexic students' learning difference is not related to intelligence, vision, or cognitive skills, but to written and spoken language. Most of these students rely heavily on AT to communicate efficiently and effectively in their daily lives. Therefore, the MOEYI should make accessible resources and services readily available for all dyslexic students.
Achieving success with dyslexia is an uphill struggle. According to many parents with dyslexic children, the challenges they face in the public school system and homeschooling are many. These challenges are much more significant for low-income families with children who are attending rural educational facilities. The social, emotional, and health impact of the coronavirus, and the financial implications for these families, especially those who have lost their jobs, is unbearable. To add to those difficulties, they struggle with the pressure to teach with little or no educational resources, especially teaching subjects and lessons that they don't understand.
On September 22, 2020, in a virtual press conference, the Education Minister Fayval Williams released a decision to delay face-to-face lessons as the country continues to experience the effects of COVID-19. She said, “As such, students will remain at home, where they will be able to access lessons virtually.” Remote learning puts dyslexic students at a disadvantage if they do not have the necessary assistive educational technology devices to participate. Sadly, unless they get formally diagnosed by an educational psychologist or a qualified specialist teacher they will not get these devices. These students have a fundamental right to adequate academic accommodations to ensure they had the same opportunities as the regular student cohorts during this unprecedented time.
Unfortunately, in Jamaica, the public education system is not yet legally obligated to evaluate, identify, teach, or provide direct support to dyslexic students. However, this pandemic presents an opportunity for the MOEYI to develop and implement effective dyslexia policies that clearly outline how all educational facilities should accommodate dyslexic students. These policies should be a mandatory part of the education learning cycle that should include free early screening for dyslexia, flexible curriculum to accommodate the different learning styles, allow students to take tests orally, allow for extra time on tests and exams, career development and training of teachers to gain knowledge and skills to teach students with dyslexia, and a range of hardware and software to support their learning needs.
The key to success for students who have dyslexia lies in having appropriate resources, accommodations, and support. History continues to show people who have dyslexia can prosper. Many had made tremendous contributions to society. They include famous writers, designers, architects, scientists, athletes, entertainers, innovators, politicians, jurists, physicians, business leaders, and royal families.
October is International Dyslexia Awareness Month.
Heather Christian is a retired education director and founder of the Jamaica Dyslexia Association. To learn more about dyslexia, visit the Jamaica Dyslexia Association website https://www.jamaicadyslexiaassociation.com.
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