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It was unexpected for many reasons. Neither the speaker nor his topic was on the agenda. In a symposium dominated by speakers with striking backgrounds — neurologists, pediatricians, psychiatrists, principals of world renowned special needs schools, vice-presidents of international associations — to delay a planned session and invite an “unknown” to speak out of turn was something of an oddity. Ashok Kurien was introduced simply as India's Richard Branson. That did arouse a murmur of interest and even as everyone wondered what this white-haired individual had in common with the English entrepreneur, he began to speak.
Ashok Kurien talked of his days as a child, how he had struggled in school, failing numerous exams. The school kept him merely because he was an excellent athlete. Inside the classroom he was the object of derision. He could hardly even spell correctly. His mother who headed a department at a university whipped him and called him slow. As did his teachers. When he went on to college more insults were heaped on him. He dropped out. His mother refused to talk to him and they didn't exchange words for over 45 years. Kurien took up a job in the villages of India, flying small planes to spray fields with insecticide. Five years later he headed back to the city and enrolled in a college again. This time, he persevered to finish his graduation and joined an ad agency. Though his colleagues ridiculed him, his clients loved him for his creative input. Seven years later, with less than Rs. 5,000 in his bank account, he started his own ad agency. Ambience was a big success and was eventually bought by the French agency Publicis, who retained Kurien as the managing director. He went on to become one of the founding directors of India's first independent media company, Zee. He also established India's first privately owned lottery, Playwin and started DishTV, India's first Direct-to-Home TV service. Today he is worth thousands of crores. Like Branson, Ashok Kurien achieved success despite his dyslexia. And he achieved it in a society that ill-treated him and refused to accept his problem.
The over 250 strong gathering at the first TATA Interactive Learning Disability Forum (TLDF) applauded Ashok Kurien all the way back to his seat. His unplanned, simple and inspired speech was one of the many highlights of the TLDF, held in Mumbai on 30 November and 1 December 2006.
In organizing the TLDF, Tata Interactive Systems (TIS) was aiming to increase awareness and promote remedial activities, best practices, and knowledge sharing of LD in India. TIS also hoped that the TLDF would encourage networking and sharing of ideas and innovations, eventually helping address critical LD issues. The invitees comprised a mix of people from various fields concerned with LD, from pediatricians to psychiatrists, to instructional designers and special needs educators, to parents of children with learning difficulties.
Attendees were treated to a variety of interesting talks, covering several important areas of LD — biology, psychosocial and educational interventions, government policies — by experts from various fields. Dr. Gerald Erenberg, Child Neurologist, Cleveland Clinic Foundation, US, expounded on The Biological Basis of Learning Disabilities in his well-received keynote address. Dr. Erenberg traced how our understanding of the biological basis of LD has improved over the years and expressed hope that with new research and better scientific tools we would soon be able to understand and control the primary biological causes of LD. Dr. Erenberg also addressed the symposium on ADHD — Its Role in Leading to Learning Difficulties and Medication/Remedial in which he advocated the three-pronged approach of medication, education, and psychosocial intervention to help a person with ADHD successfully integrate with society.
Dr. Madhuri Kulkarni, Professor and Head of Pediatrics, Sion Hospital, India, in her talk The Learning Disabilities Movement in India — Where We Are, brought the audience up-to-date on the history of the LD movement in India — from its beginnings to the landmark judgment of the Mumbai High Court in 2006 that made it easier for LD children to study in mainstream schools. She also outlined the challenges faced by the LD movement in India: little awareness of LD related issues, lack of remedial centers in all schools, and few standardized psychological and educational tests in Indian languages to identify children with LD.
Lalitha Ramanujan, the Founder Director of Alpha to Omega Learning Center, India, took the audience through the different Types of LD — Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, and ADHD. In a talk peppered with anecdotes about her experience of bringing up a child with LD and her work with LD children at her learning center, Ramanujan stressed on how remedial action for LD children was the best way to help them work around their difficulties.
Glenys Heap, Senior Training Principal with Dyslexia Action, UK, in her talk, Remedial Techniques an Overview, spoke of practical techniques like cursive handwriting and synthetic phonics, to help LD children. She made a strong case for structured multi-sensory learning that works best for LD children by reinforcing links between sound and symbols.
Patricia Barthorpe, a Special Education Needs Consultant, UK, addressed the audience twice during the symposium. In Maths and Learning Problems in Maths, she outlined the use of innovative techniques like getting the LD students to tell a mathematical story and helping them discern patterns in numbers and figures to help them overcome Dyscalculia. Speaking on LD in Adolescent and Adult Life — Career Choices, she elucidated on how developing the interpersonal and intrapersonal skills of LD children helps them lead fruitful lives as adults. With the push for equal opportunities at work, people with LD are now able to find an occupation more in tune with today's networked economy instead of traditional unskilled jobs.
Karen Dakin, Vice-President of the International Dyslexia Association, did a Review of Multi-tiered Instruction Model for Reading Disabilities, Assessments, and Intervention Techniques for the Classroom and described the three-tiered education approach followed in some classrooms in the U.S. Karen also addressed the audience on the Orton-Gillingham Therapy for Dyslexia explaining the basis of the therapy and how the therapy teaches phonological awareness, morphology, and semantics through a direct approach and diagnostic teaching.
Dr. Sardesai, who works with the Government of India in Education and Child Health, while talking on How the Government Can Help, outlined how the Government is reaching out to students with LD through its Sarva Shikshan Abhiyaan using the guidelines provided by the High Court of Mumbai. She also pointed out that sensitizing the teachers and school principals, training subject teachers to recognize LD, and organizing remedial teaching were big challenges and that the government as yet had no effective ways of tackling them.
Dr. Smita Desai, Special Educator and Psychiatrist, Drishti, India, tackled a problem peculiar to India, Vernacular Languages and LD. India's multi-lingual ethos require assessments and interventions to be administered in numerous languages and stressed the need to develop a standard indigenous assessment portfolio.
In his talk on Social and Emotional Aspects in the Learning Disabled, Dr. Kersi Chavda noted that feelings of frustration, inadequacy, and loneliness result in higher than normal incidence of depression and suicide in kids with LD.
There were also talks by Jean Salt who spoke on Inclusive Education — Every Teacher is a Teacher of an LD Student, highlighting the inclusive education policy followed in the U.K. Anita Guha described how IBM included people with special needs in its workforce while speaking on Career Opportunities for People with Disabilities. She pointed out that it is necessary to position diversity and inclusivity not only as something to "help" a special group but also as a policy that helps an organization deliver better value to its clients and the society.
The symposium also featured a couple of short films on the issue of LD. Laura Cryer from SEN & Inclusion Publisher, Semerc, Granada Learning, UK, while talking on Supporting People with Learning Disabilities Using Information Technology demonstrated some e-learning products that helped LD students.
A separate medical track featured talks by Dr. Nandini Mundkur from Bangalore Children's Hospital (Medical Aspects of LD), Dr. Madhuri Kulkarni (Procedures of Assessment), and Dr. Sunil Karande, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Sion Hospital (Case Studies of LD).
Two panel discussions, one each at the end of every day, analyzed some aspects of LD. Dr. Smita Desai chaired a discussion that had Kate Currawala (Maharastra Dyslexia Association), Laura Cryer, Manisha Mohan (from TIS), and Achama Matthew (CEO, Bombay Cambridge Schools), analyzing Technology and Teaching in LD. The discussion concluded that technology, especially computers, being non-judgmental and fast, could be a great tool for LD children to practice their lessons and by giving them the control, could also empower.
The Way Forward was chaired by Kate Currawala. Dr. Madhuri Kulkarni felt increasing centers and people testing for LD were the areas to focus on. Rukhsana Kolhapurwalla, felt that a move away from rote learning to understanding, in India’s schools would benefit LD children. Mr. Sanjaya Sharma, CEO of TIS, pointed out that while experts could tell what needed to be done, TIS can make it happen by bringing its project management approach to the challenge.
The TLDF ended on that practical note.
Judging by the reactions of the audience and the speakers, the TLDF seemed to be quite a success. Glenys Heap felt that the TLDF was "A great experience, a wonderful opportunity to meet with other specialists from all over the world." Dr. Gerald Erenberg pointed out that the “well planned list of topics and top notch presenters” ensured that the TLDF was well received. Patricia Barthorpe pointed out that while it was a good first attempt, TIS needs to build on this each year.
This is just the beginning and TIS intends to make the TLDF an annual feature. The TIS team that organized and attended the TLDF is already thinking of ways to realize Mr. Sharma’s vision. Going by the TIS' record of bettering performances each year and the promise shown by the first TLDF, the second symposium will definitely be worth the wait. And you never know, Richard Branson, might be the surprise speaker next year.
(Mandar Talvekar is a Senior Instructional Designer at Tata Interactive)