The Pain of Dyslexia, As Told by Bollywood

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

NEW DELHI -- A recent Bollywood movie about a dreamy 8-year-old boy had all the ingredients of an Indian blockbuster -- six songs, tearful ups and downs and a happy ending. But the film has also planted the seeds of a movement to raise public awareness about dyslexia in India.

When Madhu Mangla, 45, watched the movie, "Taare Zameen Par," Hindi for "Stars on Earth," she broke down and wept in the theater. She recalled feeling as if it were her son's life reenacted on screen.

"My son changed five schools, but he could not read and write. He was labeled a failure by teachers. Children picked on him at school. I scolded him at home all the time," Mangla said of her son, now 18.

But after watching the movie, she went home and looked up dyslexia online. She read all night, and the next day she printed out the addresses of support groups in the city.

"The film gave me the strength to come out and admit he has dyslexia. It has taken me a very long time to do that," she said, as she played with the end of her floral chiffon sari and watched her son study at a learning center for dyslexic children. In the past three months, Mangla said, she has seen remarkable changes in her son, Rahul Mangla, who has been working with special-education teachers. He took the national 10th-grade test for the first time recently, and he has begun to type and send text messages from his cellphone.

"I learned in the movie that I have something called dyslexia," Rahul said. "But I also learned that I can overcome it with the right kind of teachers."

A runaway hit, the film is about a bucktoothed, wide-eyed boy who is scolded and punished by teachers and parents for poor test scores, and repeatedly called an "idiot" and "duffer." He retreats into a shell of silence and tears -- until a new, messiah-like arts teacher discovers the boy has dyslexia and encourages him to paint.

The film has lifted the veil on an issue that has remained shrouded in private pain for many families in India. Parents, schools, activists and policymakers have held conferences and public meetings to talk openly about dyslexia since the film was released in December. Though a handful of groups have addressed the issue of dyslexia in India's big cities for more than a decade, public awareness and acceptance have been woefully low.

Dyslexia is the most common learning disability among children, and it affects a person's ability to process the written word, symbols and numbers. Most Indian schools do not have programs to help children with learning disabilities, and teachers are generally not trained to deal with the issue, if not completely ignorant of it. The few private schools that offer special education charge extra fees.

Activists estimate that 5 to 10 percent of Indian children show signs of dyslexia, but there are no official figures on the matter.

"There has been a sudden awakening about dyslexia in the popular consciousness after the movie. So many people are hearing the word for the first time. People who lived in denial or hid it for years are now coming out to talk about it," said Anjuli Bawa, a parent-activist who founded Action Dyslexia Delhi and fought for the right to an amanuensis, or a scribe, for dyslexic children taking national high school exams.

Since the movie was released, Bawa said, the number of parents who come to her office every month has increased tenfold. Some women who live with traditional extended Indian families call about their children without the knowledge of their husbands or mothers-in-law.

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