Surviving Dyslexia: The Struggles Of Nigerians Living With Learning Disabilities 

Students with this condition are often labelled lazy or unserious and are blamed for their difficulties in reading, spelling and writing.

Sometime in 2019,  a boy was brought to the Amina Dyslexia Center by his mother for possible dyslexia because he kept failing his exams at school. 

Anita Nchat Kelvin, a dyslexia therapist who runs the centre in Kaduna, North West Nigeria, suggested that they pull him out of regular school for a year so he could get enough neurodivergent-conscious tutoring to catch up with his peers. She further suggested that the boy’s father come along to discuss it. 

However, when the father came, he got upset and threatened the mother with a divorce if she dared to bring their child to a school ‘for disabled children’.

When the situation started to escalate, Anita suggested they go back home. Only with the input of other family members did the father reluctantly allow it later on.

Anita recalled that in a span of four months, two remarkable things happened.

“One, the boy was able to read short words such as two- and three-letter words as well as put them in short sentences. Two, his writing became more legible, and the father slowly started to show interest. In fact, the father later brought along a friend whose son showed similar symptoms.”

Dyslexia is a a learning disorder involving difficulty in reading. Some people’s journey with the condition is fraught with challenges, like the boy described above. 

For Benazir Bawallah, another person with the condition, getting two law degrees and working in the financial compliance sector was a tough journey. Born and raised in Lagos, South West Nigeria, until she was 17, Benazir was raised in a typical Nigerian household. Her parents had little to no knowledge of dyslexia, and some of her teachers wouldn’t make things easier.

An early diagnosis of Dyslexia did not stop Benazir’s parents from thinking she was too lazy for academic excellence. Dyslexia makes its bearers have problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words, according to the Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit American academic medical centre.  

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) noted that this learning disability affects 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the world’s population, and the percentage could reach 30 per cent in lower-income communities. 

This condition also has no cure and can go undiagnosed for a long time. 

Meanwhile, Dyslexia Help Africa, a support and awareness group, estimated the dyslexia rate in Nigeria to be 20 per cent of the total population. Despite this high rate, however, there appears to be insufficient awareness and understanding of the condition in Nigeria.

“Primary school and junior secondary school were pretty traumatic until I met teachers who understood how to teach children with a learning disability,” Benazir told HumAngle, unravelling how having dyslexia affected her relationship with her parents, especially her mother.

“I initially blamed her for how she handled my diagnosis growing up, but now I have realised that she did the best she could with the limited tools she had. It is difficult, but our relationship is a work in progress,” she added.

In 2020, Benazir attended therapy sessions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although staying alone for four months during this period affected her, it also helped her put some things into perspective.

When it comes to writing, 32-year-old Benazir struggles with difficulty in punctuation and grammar and is prone to spelling errors. “I have to read and write in complete silence as external sounds like TV or music usually make it difficult for me to assimilate or think,” she said. 

Illustrated person with a contemplative expression surrounded by floating, jumbled letters on a blue background.
Illustration by Kingsley Chibueze/HumAngle. 

She admitted that her writing problems at a point could have been due to a lack of discipline. Fortunately, she didn’t have to write the West African Examination Council (WAEC) because she had attended a British school that only required an International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGSCE) to scale through.

“The exams were less about memorising and more about understanding and application,” Benazir said, noting how she thrived in the British and later American education system because she was only required to apply things she had learnt, rather than memorising them. 

She left for England at 17 for A levels and higher education and later went to the United States to attend a law school. While studying abroad, Benazir recorded her classes to listen to the audio clips later and took important notes at her pace. She also used speech-to-text software and mind-mapping tools to tackle her learning difficulties.

Benazir now struggles to rebuild her confidence after misconceptions about slow learning speed. “This is me with a bachelor’s of law and a master’s degree still dealing with confidence in my abilities,” she said,  adding that she has learnt to understand her areas of struggle and found ways to deal with them. 

Anita Kevin said she believes that girls with intellectual disabilities are being excluded, as symptoms of this learning disability tend to be more hidden in them due to societal expectations.

“There are also beliefs like girls are naturally dumb, and the society not expecting educational excellence from girls makes it harder for them to get a diagnosis,” she told HumAngle.

In February 2024, Nigerian lawmakers adopted a bill titled ‘Need To Implement Global Standards on National Policy of Education,’ which is expected to promote inclusive education, but Anita worries about what that means for children dealing with mental disabilities like dyslexia, attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and autism. 

“These so-called inclusive schools are also excluding neurodiverse students and say they are not fit for the system while there are no home-schooling curriculums,” the dyslexia expert added. “If we are serious about inclusive schools, we have to make them very inclusive to involve all forms of disabilities and make homeschooling curriculum sold in shops or get experts in the ministry of education to guide parents on homeschooling.”

Navigating the digital marketing world with Dyslexia 

Before he became a content creator writing for different brands, 26-year-old Paschal Umehea was considered a slow learner because he is dyslexic. 

“The earliest memory of when I started experiencing dyslexia was in primary 3. I have always been a slow learner but one constant thing was difficulty in reading out loud. No one believed me when I said the words disappeared and reappeared,” he narrated to HumAngle. 

Paschal’s diagnosis was not official; his mother told a therapist friend, who suggested that he might be dyslexic. Growing up in Kaduna, he had experienced the awful way society treated slow learners and how they considered people with such disability as weaklings.

“I have always been more of a visual learner so I’ve always thought I would be in a field where I am only dealing with audio and video content but I am mostly a writer,” he said, noting that dyslexia and ADHD made things even harder for him in school. 

His belief is not out of place, as the International Dyslexia Association estimated that at least 30 per cent of people struggling with dyslexia also struggle with ADHD. 

“Now that I know what I am dealing with, it’s easier to navigate it. I am not as hard on myself as I would have been before knowing and it has helped me in navigating my interpersonal relationships too,” he continued.

However, finding online communities of people dealing with different kinds of mental illnesses has been helpful for Paschal. Although he doesn’t belong to any association or group chat for dyslexic people, he finds solace in the random support and validation he gets online when he airs his thoughts about his struggles.

“I will say the community found me or we gravitate towards each other,” he said. 

According to a study by the National Library of Medicine, males are more likely to be diagnosed with dyslexia than females and this is mainly influenced by referral bias and sex differences such as the huge rates of externalising symptoms in boys and men. 

However, dyslexia therapist Anita urged parents to support children with learning disabilities emotionally and psychologically. Across the world, she said, adults with neurodiversity who channelled it into successes usually had social, academic and emotional support from their mothers.

“Mothers are more likely to advocate for children and find solutions while fathers tend to downplay these issues. I try to encourage fathers to be better advocates for their children. Culturally, we attach more respect to men, making it easier for them to be heard. ” the dyslexia therapist said. She also tries to ensure both parents are present when diagnosing or handling their children’s issues. 

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