Prime Minister Narendra Modi is facing criticism for being insensitive towards people with dyslexia. While video conferencing with engineering students at the Smart India Hackathon 2019 on Saturday, Modi heard a student speak about her idea to help people with dyslexia. He used it as an opportunity to take a potshot at his political rival, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, and asked the student if her idea would help a person aged 40 to 50.

Several people took to Twitter to express shock at Modi using dyslexia as a political punchline and a slur. Between 5% and 20% of all people have dyslexia. According to the Department of Biotechnology, the incidence of dyslexia in India is estimated at 10% and nearly 35 million children in the country are thought to have this learning disability.

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a neurological condition that affects a person’s ability to read, write and spell. A dyslexic person has difficulty learning to read words and understanding language in print. Such a person can have normal, even above average intelligence, so dyslexia is referred to as a Specific Learning Difficulty.

Dyslexia can be developmental dyslexia, affecting the foetus and manifesting in childhood. Or it can be acquired later in life as a result of damage to the nervous system, like from a stroke.

Symptoms of dyslexia – speech impairment, poor vocabulary, difficulty decoding symbols and sounds – can vary from one child to another. Children with dyslexia often mix up letters such as reading and writing “b” in place of “d”, or they make calculation errors because they don’t see numbers in a given sequence like those without dyslexia do.

Difficulty in learning

The biggest problem facing children with dyslexia is that they are unable to cope with conventional schooling. A powerful and sensitive reverse poem by a British schoolgirl illustrates a part of the struggle that children with dyslexia face.

Children with dyslexia need to be taught in a way that allows them to bypass their learning disability. A commonly used method is multi-sensory structured language which employs touch, sight, movement and sound to teach children how to read and write. A child making letters and words in sand, for example, is able to remember the tactile component of writing better than while writing with a pen on paper.

Dyslexia has a genetic component and so tends to run in the family. Dyslexia with reading disability has been associated with changes in chromosome 6 while other forms of dyslexia have been associated with chromosomes 1, 2 and 15. Yet, what we know about the genetics of dyslexia serves to explain only a small part of the global incidence of dyslexia.

Screening for dyslexia

Recently, Indian researchers found a cluster of genes, mutations in which may give rise to dyslexia. The researchers, at the National Brain Research Centre, found a strong correlation between dyslexia and variations in the gene cluster called protocadherin gamma. The study was based on an analysis of a single family in Maharashtra.

In 2015, the National Brain Research Centre had launched India’s first indigenously developed and standardised tool for screening and assessing dyslexia. The Dyslexia Assessment in Languages of India, or DALI, is a standardised assessment of around 4,840 children with tools in Hindi, Marathi, Kannada and English, with more being developed.

At the time, the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology, recognised that because of the absence of screening and assessment tools in Indian languages, the diagnosis of dyslexia in India was incomplete or even unavailable. It said it was critical that dyslexia be assessed in all languages in which a child is given instruction since Indian children are taught in at least two languages and often three.

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