Malaria and typhoid diseases we know. Sickle cell and prostrate problem we have learnt to manage and live with. Hemophilia and anorexia we have heard of. HIV and Ebola we dread. But dyslexia, what disease is it? Is it some deadly Whiteman disease imported to our climes by our ever copying elite to put the fear of God in us? What, exactly, is dyslexia? Is it a disease, a disorder, a dysfunction or a dislocation of an organ or a part of the body?
This was the sentiment that ran through my mind when my friend, Ben Arikpo and his wife, who are founders of the Dyslexia Foundation of Nigeria, sent me an IV requesting me to attend the 2nd National Conference on Dyslexia billed then to hold at Merit House Abuja on Monday, 29th October. More frighteningly, they had assigned me the task of being reviewer of a book written by the Foundation entitled Understanding Dyslexia: A Handbook for Schools, Teachers and Families in Nigeria, which was also billed to be launched on that day of the conference.
I was first frightened by the prospect of attending a conference at which venue what I thought was a very dreaded disease, possibly a pandemic which would claim millions of lives, would be scientifically unveiled to the Nigerian audience for the first time. I dread hearing about diseases because I tend to suffer from what is known as Medical Students Syndrome, a disposition in which learners or hearers about the symptoms of diseases tend to think that they are suffering from it! Secondly, I was also afraid of the assignment given me by the couple because I was to travel and would not have access to a copy of the book to enable me to carry out their request of me.
When I returned from my journey and received the book and went through it, I felt relieved of both fears. First, I discovered that Dyslexia is not a disease, let alone an incurable and life-threatening one, as I first feared. In fact, the condition/’disease’, if it can be so called, is not a White man, Asiatic or any other exclusive racial affliction, not to talk of it being a new ailment just come to our clime. No; dyslexia is none of that. Rather, it is neurological condition which sufferers come with from birth or acquire through a freak accident such as a traumatic brain injury. It is also correct to say that dyslexia has always been with man of all races, possibly from the beginning of creation. It sounds frightening now to us in our clime here just because we have not been made aware of it by experts. It has always been with us here but has been mislabeled or misunderstood.
As contained in the handbook aforementioned, dyslexia is a neurologically based condition, an unfamiliar disorder which interferes with the acquisition and processing of language and varies in degree of severity. It manifests in difficulty in receptive and expressive language; including reading, writing, spelling, handwriting (dysgraphia) and comprehension and may present attention issues (Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder).
In a lay man’s language, dyslexics (sufferers from dyslexia) are individuals who are born with the challenge of not being able to process and manipulate the sounds in a spoken language and so find it extremely difficult to read words accurately and fluently. They also have difficulties in spelling things correctly. Some of them find it hard to speak long after birth. In both adult and child sufferers, dyslexics are hardly ever able to set down their ideas in writing and have short attention span. Due mainly to our ignorance and our superstitious bent of mind, children with these mainly verbal and writing challenges appear as abnormal to us. Consequently, they are seen as stupid, morons and evil children sent by evil forces to torment their parents. The truth of the matter, however, is that dyslexics are not morons, idiots or lazy people who cannot learn; neither are they sufferers of evil bewitchment by rival stepmothers, jealous family members or dark forces nor are they punishments sent by the gods. They are simply people who are differently wired by the Creator as many of them are usually more than average in intelligence.
Richard Blankson, Bill Gates, Albert Einstein and many other renowned individuals across the globe are some of the best known dyslexics. So distinguished is this company that some have tended to wonder whether dyslexia is anything that should be regarded as a handicap. Dyslexia, as we can see, is not a disease or disability that is responsive to ‘medical’ treatment except expert mental exercises. It is not a visual problem, a lack of intelligence or a developmental lack of any kind as most sufferers are known to be geniuses. It is a disorder which afflicts 5-17.5 per cent of the world’s population but which, with careful and painstaking management, can be overcome and lived with.
When, eventually, the conference opened on Monday October the 29th, I and hundreds of others, especially teachers, who were specially invited, had a swell time in terms of knowledge acquired about this disorder which sends especially parents into a panic mode. Attendees were enlightened about the causes, signs, and tips on what schools, teachers, parents and even the general society need to do to successfully manage sufferers so they can be assisted to become useful members of society. One key point that was made by some of those who spoke or presented papers at the event was the fact that many sufferers of certain disorders or disabilities fail to realise their potential not because of the disorders or disabilities in them but because of the low or lack of self-esteem they feel because of the way society perceives them.
This particular point struck me especially the emphasis made by a speaker that we the so-called normal people should not see dyslexics as abnormal but persons differently wired by the all-knowing Creator who does not make a mistake. While I sucked in information about dyslexics, I realised that I had a secondary school classmate who was dyslexic. This mate of mine will fail every other subject apart from Mathematics which he will score not below 94 marks no matter how difficult the questions were!
The mission of trying to enlighten Nigeria about dyslexia by the Arikpos is a child of circumstance. One of the Arikpos’ children is dyslexic. From the traumatic experience these lovely couple had in bringing up that ‘trouble’ child to learn how to read, write and properly spell things led to the discovery of what today has become a life mission for the two. They want the world to know about this disorder and how to manage it because it is not curable and it is not life-threatening. Many life missions are borne of personal adversity and I am not surprised about the passion and energy which the Arikpos have invested in this new found pursuit. When it was time for the Arikpo wife to give a vote of thanks, she spoke in an impassioned tone about how her husband used to spank their dyslexic son, calling him frustrated and hate-filled names such as stupid, foolish, moron, lazy and useless until they discovered what was wrong. The Arikpos do not want other parents and teachers to go through the awful wrong response experience they went through. What they want parents, schools and teachers to do is to patiently help dyslexic children to discover and nurture their hidden talents to full fruition.That is a summary of why they have founded the Dyslexia Foundation of Nigeria and why they are consumed in that service to humanity. It was no flattery when I told them they are possibly in the making for a Nobel Peace Prize for disseminating information that would lead to the production and harnessing of direly needed human capital resources for the growth and development of Nigeria and Black Africa.
Alibi is an Abuja-based journalist