Millennium Post

Forget his report card... hand him a paint brush

What are your fondest memories from your childhood? While memories may vary, from playing with friends or being pampered by parents, a walk with grandparents or a certain holiday with cousins – some things are part of every young life, such as an Enid Blyton book (or a Harry Potter for the next generation) or children’s fiction in one’s mothertongue. Summer and winter holidays or a rainy day leave in school would be incomplete without cuddling up with the book of one’s choice.

Not for everyone, though. Children with learning disability are largely bereft of the joys of reading for fun, because of their inability to read most letters of the alphabet. Learning what? Well, that problem that the young protagonist with amazing artistic skills used to suffer from in the Aamir Khan starrer
Taare Zameen Par

In 1936, Edward William Dolch, compiled a list of 220 ‘sight words’  or words that can be learned visually, as opposed to words that are learnt phonetically, and that children with learning disability could easily read. There were no nouns in the list. Nouns were made into a separate list of 96 words. Now, more than 76 years later, a company called Grey Worldwide is working to use these words to create a library of books for children with learning disability. Titled ‘The Dolch Project’, the as-of-now primarily online movement is being managed by Bodhisatwa Dasgupta and Dushyant Chopra, both employees at Grey Worldwide. ‘It all started with a mail that was forwarded to me by a friend. The writer of the mail had enquired whether something can be done to help children with learning disability. We started thinking of options and then came up with the idea to invite writers to write stories and poems for children with learning disability using words from the Dolch list,’ explains Dasgupta.

In a little more than weeks since the project was announced, Grey Worldwide has already received obout 60 short stories and poems. ‘We encourage writers to used words that are on the Dolch list, but they are also allowed to use a few words that are not on the list but are commonly used today. The Dolch list is old. Since then many words have been added to the daily vocabulary and children with learning disability too recognise some of them,’ says Dasgupta.

Like 14-year-old Vinayak, who recently learnt to read words, ‘but he could play his favourite songs on the ipod for a long time. So there was some way he knew how to access the songs. May be there was some way he could recognise words like menu and play. I also feel some regional and local words should be used as children from a certain locality and region know those words,’ explains B Narayanswamy, Vinayak’s father, whose mail to a friend had given birth to the idea of ‘The Dolch Project’.

Vinayak’s mother, Geeta, is one of those who has contributed to the project.

While at present stories and poems sent for the project are put up on the community page on Facebook, Bodhisatta and Dushyant plan to publish it soon. ‘Talks are on with publishers, but we are yet to finalise in what form to bring out the collection, whether to make it into a normal book, a graphic novel or a comics,’ says Bodhisatwa. Bodhisata says schools and counsellers have also written to them wanting to be a part of the project.

But while putting together a collection of stories for children with learning disability is definitely a positive step forward, there are more pressing needs that require to be addressed here, the primary one being awareness building. ‘Before
Taare Zameen Par
there was zero awareness about learning disability. Now there is some awareness,’ says Narayanswamy.

The plight of these children are often worsened because parents and teachers are unaware of their problem and when they fail to recognise words or write correctly, elders punish them for being lazy or stupid.  Rajiv Nandy, a counseller who has twenty years of experience of working with such children says, ‘There should be mandatory screening at all schools at age six to identify any child with learning disability. B.ED education should include learning disability so that all trained teachers have at least a primary knowledge of how to help such children.’ Nandy has conducted workshops and set up resource centres for children with learning disability at schools such as Delhi Public School, Amity and JP Public School and supports inclusive education for children with learning disability. ‘Children with learning disability have almost average, average or above average intelligence. So there is no reason for them to go to a special school. Teachers at normal schools can be trained to teach them in a way that they understand and their peer group can be counselled so that they help these children. In fact, I have had students, children with learning disability, who have gone on to successfully complete their college or professional education, be it in commerce or some field like animation. Many of them are uncommonly creative.’

So parents relax, teachers don’t shirk that bit of extra effort and help that child who gets confused between his ‘B’ and ‘D’ make you proud of his achievements someday.

Hopefully by then, many newer words would have been added to the Dolch list and there would be books enough to fill libraries for them.
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