When Tata Interactive Systems (TIS) wanted to finalise its corporate sustainability (CS) project, you would have expected it to spring from the company’s specialisation in e-learning. After all, it is a global pioneer in the field, having in the last two decades or so created innovative, next-generation and customised performance solutions for more than 50 blue-chip corporations, government bodies worldwide and well-known educational institutions and publishing houses such as Boston University, McGraw-Hill, Oxford University Press, Pearson Education and the University of Phoenix. Yet, the first projects to be evaluated as likely options were from a variety of fields: the KEM Hospital in Mumbai, blood banks, Pratham (an NGO) and educational institutes like the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and St Stephen’s College, Delhi.
When it was finally decided to choose learning disabilities in children as the primary focus area, it was only partly because e-learning would be involved. The main reason was that the subject was largely neglected in the country, even though a very large number of children were affected by learning disabilities, and TIS could thus champion the cause rather than merely be a funding agency.
Dyslexia is reasonably well known to most people. This is a language disorder that affects a child’s reading, spelling, speaking and listening skills. Dyslexic children also have problems with orientation, which means they are sometimes unable to tell right from left. They are often confused by letters in the alphabet that are similar. For example, they will mistake 'b' for 'd'. They tend to also reverse letters in words: for example, they may read 'bin' as 'nib'. In some cases, dyslexic children may skip words in a sentence or even skip lines while reading.
Another learning disability is dysgraphia, which is a disorder that affects a child’s writing skills. They may speak out sentences correctly, but when asked to write them down will often jumble them up. Their writing is often illegible, with some letters written very large and others very small, and sometimes written with so much pressure that the page tears. They may also write out words as they hear them, ‘munky’ for monkey or ‘enuf’ for enough.
A third learning disability is dyscalculia, which is a disorder that affects a child’s mathematical and calculation skills. These children may use their fingers to count, reverse numbers (63 for 36) and find it difficult to memorise multiplication tables. They also often mix up symbols like '+', 'x', '-' and '='. In short, they have immense difficulty doing arithmetic, or for that matter, even simple sums mentally.
Learning disabilities are thought to be caused by a number of factors, including genetics. Sometimes, the disorder may be due to brain damage caused in the womb or in early infancy, eg, physical injury, infection, lack of oxygen or even alcohol or drug abuse by the mother. Occasionally, the cause may be a lack of the required nutrients during infancy.
Unfortunately, these disorders cannot be cured by medication. The only treatment is remedial education, custom-made for each child depending on his or her strengths and weaknesses. The computer, using specially created software, is very useful in remedial education because it’s a one-to-one tool, responds quickly and is non-judgemental in its dealings. It allows children the luxury of practising their lessons, and gives them control over the learning process.
TIS developed special software for this purpose. The success of this software can be gauged from the fact that it is now being used by institutions in the UK, the US, the UAE, Australia and in many European countries. However, TIS didn’t stop at that. TIS realised that in India, learning disabilities needed strong advocacy for it to be given the importance it deserves. After all, the numbers are alarming; as many as 4 per cent of children across the country may suffer from some form of this disorder, in a mild or severe degree.
The first initiative in advocacy was to support the Learning Disability Clinic at Mumbai’s Lokmanya Tilak Municipal General (LTMG) Hospital. TIS began funding the clinic in 2002 to help it get back on its feet, and then provided management support and guidance to streamline processes. It also helped create a database to store and analyse student records.
The clinic at LTMG Hospital also serves another vital function: it has been given the authority to certify whether a child suffers from learning disabilities. Once they have this certificate, the children can avail of special provisions which will help them pursue their education. Concessions like syllabus modification, additional time during examinations and the use of special learning aids have been granted by the Government of Maharashtra as well as the national boards conducting the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education and the Central Board of Secondary Education examinations.
TIS has forged partnerships with LD-focused organisations to expand the grant of these concessions in schools across the country. As a result of this, 924 learning-disabled children received LD certification in 2007 (up from 617 the previous year), a total of 3,300 children in nine years. As many as 225 new schools registered for LD certification in 2007 (480 in the last nine years). This dramatic increase has happened because of an increase in awareness and also TIS employees’ voluntary efforts to spread knowledge about LD at various schools in Mumbai with the help of an LD awareness kit in their spare time.
By spreading awareness, it has now been possible to also get the subject of learning disabilities included in the MBBS syllabus in Maharashtra, so that medical students are aware of the disorder and can deal with it professionally when they qualify as doctors.
Simultaneously, efforts are also being made to introduce LD as a subject in BEd courses, so that future teachers too are aware of the disorder and will know how to manage it.
Finally, TIS volunteers worked with specialists from the Learning Disabilities Clinic at LTMG Hospital to develop Brain Teasers, a book designed to make the learning of words and numbers easier for LD children. By using graphics, cartoon characters and other visual aids, plus puzzles and games, Brain Teasers makes learning an exciting pictorial journey. The book has been highly recommended by special educators and is expected to go into multiple editions. TIS distributes Brain Teasers free of cost to organisations conducting remedial activities.
People often forget that children with learning disabilities are not lazy, difficult or prone to tantrums; they are, in fact, intelligent children who need special attention. If they receive the right kind of help at the right time, they can even become achievers. Walt Disney was dyslexic and so was Thomas Alva Edison. Leonardo da Vinci, Agatha Christie and Winston Churchill had dyslexia, as do Richard Branson, Tom Cruise and Whoopi Goldberg. But even if a child does not reach great heights, they can enjoy their schooling years, instead of being pressured to perform, provided they receive the special attention they need, which Tata Interactive Systems is trying to provide.