Growing up, Rachel Lukania knew that she was different from other children.
Unlike others her age, she was unable to read or spell even the simplest of words, no matter how hard she tried. As you can imagine, this exposed her to constant ridicule and had it not been for her mother’s encouragement and support, life would have been doubly difficult for her.
“I had a poor memory and found it difficult to remember something I had been taught recently — I could not grasp even the simplest concept and because of this, my classmates teased me a lot,” Rachel says.
Due to this, the now 50-year-old mother-of-four had to repeat classes several times, and by the time she completed secondary school, she was 20 years old.
“I performed so poorly in my KCPE exams that I was not called to join any secondary school. I spent the first term at home as my mother struggled to find a school that would accept me,” she says.
Her resilient mother, Esther Ali, did manage to get her a school, but she would rather forget most of the memories she has of secondary school.
“I dreaded prize-giving days, not because I would not receive a prize, but because the five poorest performing students were ordered to stand up,” says Rachel.
The occasion, which was held every term, was attended by parents as well, which made her humiliation even more painful.
“Each time my name was called, something in me died… I really tried to perform well, but I just couldn’t.”
Her only saving grace was her mother, who never once said a discouraging word to her, only striving to encourage her. All this time, no one suspected that Rachel, who appeared normal in every other way, had a learning disability, not even her teachers.
Even though her academic performance was dismal, she was very good in music, drama, poetry, and dance, and as a result, always represented her school at national competitions.
“I was especially good at reciting poetry and solo verses, given that I am gifted with a very strong voice. I was also good at dramatisation,” Rachel says, adding that this helped to raise her self-esteem.
Not about to give up on her daughter, Rachel’s mother enrolled her in college after secondary school, where she studied for a certificate in labour studies and management.
But it was a struggle for her and she had to repeat the course for another year.
Around this time, she fell in love and got married. It was in 2000 that she finally found out that she had a learning disability.
“I discovered that like me, my second-born son, Harun, who was in Standard One, found it difficult to read and write,” Rachel says.
As she agonised about what to do, Harun’s teacher, who had observed this as well, advised her to have him assessed by a doctor. But the doctor gave him a clean bill of health.
It is around this time that one of Rachel’s cousin’s, a doctor, suggested that Harun could be dyslexic.
When Rachel looked up the work “dyslexia”, the information that she got left her in no doubt about what she and her son were suffering from.
“I felt relieved and encouraged, relieved because I had a name to what had haunted me all my life and encouraged because my son would not have to go through the same experiences that I did.”
After lengthy research, the first step that Rachel took was to transfer her son to a school that offered the British curriculum of education.
“This system embraces children with learning disabilities. For instance, they are given sufficient time to complete their class work and examinations, while teaching is done with the aid of flashcards, paper letters, charts, sand, and other devices to aid memory,” she explains.
Harun is now 19 and is in his first semester at the Jamuhuri Film and Television Training Institute in Nairobi.
Harun is confident and focused, and knows what he wants to do with his life.
“I want to do photography and camera work. I also plan to draw and paint professionally,” he says.
Harun, who can express himself, explains that over time, there has been marked improved in his language.
“I have learnt to break words into small bits of sounds, which I pronounce slowly,” he explains.
He is not short of encouragement.
“We, his father and I, as well as his siblings, support and encourage him a lot,” says Rachel.
Rachel says that her son has been able to cope well with his condition because he has a positive attitude.
“He doesn’t give up on anything and has high self-esteem,” she says.
Since she put a name to what had been holding her back for a significant chunk of her life, Rachel is doing as much as she can to make up for lost time.
Passionate about cooking, she has a catering business which is doing well, but in her spare time, she visits schools to talk about dyslexia, which she says is still a largely unknown condition.
She adds, “The learning environment in our mainstream schools has no support for children with learning disabilities, yet dyslexics are very gifted and highly intellectual,” she says.
Rachel, who has a diploma in special needs education and a certificate in early childhood education, also makes time to teach drama, skit writing, and poetry to children with special needs.
She advises parents with dyslexic children to focus their energy on tapping the child’s talent.
“If you focus more attention on their academic performance, it may not help the child,” Rachel says.
Although dyslexia is manageable, it is a lifelong condition and is thought to have a genetic link. Rachel says that her father, too, was dyslexic.
For a dyslexic child to overcome his learning disability, he is taught using the Orton Gillingham Approach (OG).
Orton Gillingham is an instructional approach intended primarily to instruct those with difficulty in reading, spelling, and writing.
“OG is a very systemic, direct, explicit, and cumulative approach to teaching reading,” explains Esther Muchiri, an OG expert and special needs teacher.
She explains that OG teaches learners the basic units of words from their sounds, what is called phonetics.
“Teaching phonetics is combined with a multi-sensory approach to teaching where we use teaching aids flashcards, paper letters, charts, and sand to engage all the neuro-pathways of a child,” explains Ms Muchiri.
The teaching engages audio and visual drills and aesthetics like tracing tables. This rewires the brain on how to process the information. The OG approach is one-on-one and children are taught individually in a 45-minute lesson.
HEREIN LIES THE PROBLEM
The main challenge facing children with learning disabilities in Kenya is that the 8:4:4 system does not support their mode of instruction. As such, they somehow drop out of school midway since they cannot cope, says Ms Muchiri.
She says the government should come up with a proper mechanisms in public schools to promote early identification of such children and intervention. In addition, she says, every teacher needs to be trained to identify learning disability and how to help a child with this disability.
“Teachers need to be taught the right intervention techniques and how to accommodate the dyslexic, who is a slow learner,” she adds.
She points out that early identification is important because the brain is much “more plastic” in younger children and, therefore, more malleable. Given that dyslexia is a lifelong condition with no cure, this helps to alleviate its effects.
SYMPTOMS OF DYSLEXIA
- Generally, a child with this disability forgets easily and, therefore, needs extra learning support at home and in school.
- Below are symptoms of dyslexia, though just one sign alone does not necessarily mean that your child is dyslexic.
- It is also worth noting that you can only be certain that your child is dyslexic once he goes to school because this is when active learning begins.
- By monitoring your child’s progress in school, you and his teacher will be able to tell whether or not he has a learning disability.
- Difficulty in learning to read, spell, and read the alphabet.
- Difficulty in learning rhyme songs.
- Letter reversals, for instance mixing b and d, p and q, and m and w.
- Confuses look alike words like saw and was, no and on.
- Stumbles through long words and has difficulty reading phonetically.
- Difficulty with vocabulary.
- Misreads or omits common small words.
- Reading is slow and laboured. He is not fluent and reads in a choppy manner, breaking words.
The symptoms range from mild, moderate, severe, and profound. If profound, the child will exhibit all of these symptoms.
Dyslexia, in most cases, co-occurs with other learning disorders. These include:
Dyscalculia — Difficulty in learning mathematical concepts.
Dysgraphia — Poor motor control and coordination. It is marked with poor and illegible handwriting.
Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD): It is one of the most common disorders in children and symptoms include difficulty staying focused and paying attention, difficulty controlling behaviour, and hyperactivity.
Do you suspect that your child has a learning disability? Contact these schools.
- City Primary School in Ngara, Nairobi.
- Kasarani primary school in Kasarani, Nairobi, 0721544995/020-3742582
- Kestrel Manor School, Parklands, Nairobi Email: [email protected] Tel: 020 - 3740 311/ 0733616359
- Gibson’s School in Karen, Nairobi. Email: [email protected] or call: 0722740937/0733516534
- Kenya Community Centre for Learning (KCCL), an integrated school for children with learning disabilities along Thika Road in Nairobi Tel: 0721324894/0734152 809
- Joytown Special School for the Physically Handicapped in Thika Tel 0720271030
- Embu School for Special Needs [email protected]
- Machakos School for The Deaf, Machakos town, Tel 045- 442 1538 / 0721 307 706.
- Kilimani Primary School in Hurlingham, Nairobi has a deaf-blind unit Tel 020-3865101.
- Karatina Special School for the Mentally Handicapped Tel, 061-20371378.
- Abbey International Special Needs School located in Kikuyu. Tel 0720530880
- Eva Naputuni Consultancy, 407 Muhuri Road,Dagoretti, Nairobi Tel: 0725 959 137