Understanding Learning Disability and Dyslexia in the Indian Educational Context

Distinguished Fellow Professor Maya Kalyanpur, a learning disability researcher, shares the background literature to a study she is conducting in India.  A key focus of school leaders is equity and understanding the needs of students with disabilities so that school staff can ensure a supportive learning environment for all children.

In the last ten years, the number of children who are labeled as learning disabled (LD) or dyslexic in India has increased exponentially (Karande, Sholapurwala & Kulkarni, 2011) — currently, about 10% or 30 million children are estimated to have a learning disability (“10% of kids”, 2012) with a corresponding upsurge in the provision of fee-based remedial classes and special schools to respond to their needs (Dyslexia Association of India, 2011). There is no research to explain this trend.

The label of learning disability is itself new to India. It was officially recognized in 2009 when the Persons with Disabilities (PWD) Act of 1995 was amended to include the category of Specific Learning Disabilities (Unni, 2012). Earlier in 2007, the Bollywood movie, Taare Zameen Par, about a young boy struggling to learn in school, brought the term “dyslexia” into the mainstream, seeking to raise awareness, clarify some misconceptions, and reduce the stigma associated with it (“Pain of Dyslexia”, 2008).

Photo courtesy of Educate Girls Globally: http://www.educategirls.org

In post-colonial India, more children than ever before are accessing an education, facilitated by the Indian government’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (or Education for All) program launched in 2001, and the 2009 Right to Education (RTE) Act. However, recognizing English as the language of opportunity and social mobility (“Goddess of English”, 2014; Motha, 2014; Varma, 2007), parents are increasingly choosing to send their children to English-medium private schools rather than government schools where the medium of instruction is in the regional or national language, regardless of whether English is spoken at home (Kalia & Reese, 2009); as a result private school enrollment in most states is increasing (Annual Status of Education Report [ASER], 2015). With the commensurate increase in competiveness to get into and do well in school, students who experience academic difficulties are often perceived as “hopeless or badly behaved” and labeled LD (“Pain of Dyslexia”, 2008). While the main benefit of labeling is that students will get remedial help, it can also be problematic: One, there is a stigma associated with disability (Center for Equity Studies [CES], 2014). Two, sometimes children from non-English speaking homes, many of whom may also be poor or Dalit (oppressed caste community), may get labeled because they perform at a lower level than students who come to school knowing English, not because they have a disability (Mukhopadhyay & Sriprakash, 2011). Three, many schools do not offer remedial services, and most remedial schools charge high fees making them unaffordable to most children; so students get labeled but no support (CES, 2014).

Photo courtesy of Educate Girls Globally: http://www.educategirls.org

There are no equivalent local words for terms like LD or dyslexia (Gabel, 2004), suggesting that the lens by which these children are being identified is imported from the US. For instance, the definition for the term in the PWD Act is almost the same as that in the US Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Unni, 2012). However, there are problems associated with importing LD. One, scholars in the US assert that the LD category is more a social construction than a condition with a biological basis (Duhaney, 2014; Harry, 2014; Sleeter, 1986). In the 1950s, many American students who were struggling academically were labeled LD and segregated in separate classrooms because of the competition from the US-USSR space race, rather than on the basis of medically-evidenced cognitive difficulties (Sleeter, 1986). Studies show that low-income students and students for whom English is not a first language are more likely to be labeled LD than students not similarly disadvantaged, suggesting that the identification of students is often dependent on teachers’ subjective perceptions of students’ academic difficulties (Duhaney, 2014; Harry, 2014). In India, Mukhopadhyay & Sriprakash (2011) found that when government schools failed to meet standards of school effectiveness, teachers began assessing increasing proportions of students from marginalized groups as “failing”. Another study found that the RTE Act mandate to reserve 25 percent seats in private schools for children from economically and socially marginalized communities to ensure access of education resulted in many children being subjected to overt discrimination by teachers who viewed them as ‘slow learners’, ‘weak’ or ‘unteachable’, and becoming reluctant to seek clarifications because they were “scared that teachers would scold, beat or insult them, or that peers would make fun of them for what they did not know” (CES, 2015, p. 56). This suggests that, as in the US, disadvantaged students are more likely to be identified as LD.

Two, programs and practices for LD students in the US emerge from a resource-rich model of service provision that is often incompatible with the Indian realities. For

instance, schools in India are expected to provide certain modifications required by law, but the process for procuring these services can be complicated and discouraging for most families, especially those from low-income backgrounds (Ghai, 2006). The shortage of LD specialists means that most schools do not provide on-site remedial services, and many remedial schools charge high fees for the specialized services, making them unaffordable to low-income students (CES, 2012). Further, the number of

officially recognized languages in India makes creating a standardized assessment measure for the specific detection and educational intervention of children with LD problematic (Narayan, et al., 2003; Unni, 2012). Till recently, the American publishing company, Pearson, now based in India, was marketing diagnostic tools normed on the 2000 US Census “as a toolkit for assessing dyslexic students in Indian schools” (“Now, a toolkit,” 2012), suggesting that Indian children were being assessed and diagnosed as LD because they failed a test normed on US standards.

Photo courtesy of Educate Girls Globally: http://www.educategirls.org

Three, the importation of the US model tends to overlook the possibility of alternative frameworks for how disability is perceived and responded to (Breidlid, 2013; Grech, 2011). Grech (2011) recommends the need for eliciting local perceptions and understandings by adopting an assets lens. For instance, in one government Education For All program in India, many teachers and community members, recognizing that ability grouping was tantamount to discrimination and led to social conflicts, resisted the idea of labelling the children and separating them on that basis (Gandhe, 2004).

I have received a Fulbright research grant to conduct a study on this phenomenon. Using qualitative research techniques of open-ended interviews and classroom observations, I will seek to understand the meaning and effects of the label of learning disability in India by learning the perspectives of teachers on school failure and the factors necessitating labeling as well as the perspectives of students labeled LD and their families. The study will focus on two private, low-fee English-medium schools that currently identifies students as LD, since low-fee schools will be more likely to have students from low-income or non-English speaking home environments. I am hoping to use this forum to present my findings and preliminary analyses. Stay tuned for more!

Meet Dr. Kalyanpur


“10% of kids in India have learning disability: Experts say” (January 27, 2012) Times of India. Retrieved from: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-01-27/chennai/30669918_1_inclusive-education-disability-autism

Annual State of Education Report (ASER). (2015). Annual status of education report, 2014. New Delhi: Pratham.

Breidlid, A. (2013). Education, indigenous knowledges and development in the global South: Contesting knowledges for a sustainable future. New York: Routledge.

Center for Equity Studies (CES) (2014) India exclusion report, 2013-14. Bangalore: Books for Change.

Duhaney, L.M.G. (2014). Disproportionate representation in special education: A persistent stain on the field. In F. E. Obiakor & A. F. Rotatori (Eds.), Contemporary perspectives in special education: Multicultural education for learners with special needs in the 21st century (pp. 15-40). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Dyslexia Association of India (2011). Home page. Retrieved from: http://www.dyslexiaindia.org.in/

Gabel, S. (2004). South Asian Indian cultural orientations towards mental retardation. Mental Retardation, 42(1), 12-25.

Gandhe, S. K. (2004). External evaluation of Janshala programme: Synthesised report. Pune: Indian Institute of Education.

Ghai, A. (2002). Disability in the Indian context: Post-colonial perspectives. In M. Corker & T. Shakespeare, (Eds.) Disability/Postmodernity: Embodying disability theory. (pp. 88-100). Continuum: London.

“A ‘Goddess of English’ for India’s down-trodden” (February 15, 2011). BBC News. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-12355740

Grech, S. (2011). Recolonising debates or perpetuated coloniality? Decentring the spaces of disability, development and community in the global south. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 15(1), 87–100.

Harry, B. (2014). The disproportionate placement of ethnic minorities in special education. In L. Florian (Ed.). The SAGE Handbook of special education, vol. 1, 2nd Ed. (pp. 73-95). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Kalia, V & Reese, E. (2009). Relations between Indian children’s home literacy environment and their English oral language and literacy skills. Scientific Studies of Reading, 13(2), 122–145. DOI: 10.1080/10888430902769517

Karande, S., Sholapurwala R. & Kulkarni, M. (2011). Managing Specific Learning Disability in schools in India. Indian Pediatrics, 48, 517-520.

Motha, S. (2014). Race, empire and English language teaching: Creating responsible and ethical anti-racist practice. New York: Teachers College.

Mukhopadhyay, R. & Sriprakash, A. (2011). Global frameworks, local contingencies: policy translations and education development in India. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 41(3), 311 — 326.

Narayan, J., Thressiakutty, A.T., Haripriya, C., Reddy, K.G., Sen, N. (2003). Educating children with learning problems in primary schools: Resource book for teachers. Secunderabad: National Institute for the Mentally Handicapped.

“Now, a toolkit for dyslexic students in Indian schools” (July 25, 2012) The Times of India. Retrieved from: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-07-25/news/32847749_1_tool-kit-dyslexic-english-medium-schools

“The Pain of Dyslexia, as Told by Bollywood” (June 4, 2008). Washington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/06/03/AR2008060303201.html

Sleeter, C. E (1986) Learning disabilities: The social construction of a special education category. Exceptional Children, 53(1), 46-54.

Unni, J.C. (2012). Specific learning disability and the amended “Persons with Disability Act”. Indian Pediatrics, 49, 445-447. Retrieved from: http://medind.nic.in/ibv/t12/i6/ibvt12i6p445.pdf

Varma, P. (2007). We need to go back to the drawing board. In A. Kaushik (Ed.) Shiksha: The challenge of Indian education (pp. 41-50). New Delhi: Tehelka.



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