The Sunday TimesPlus

1st June 1997



Bringing them out from the hidden handicap

Teaching the child in a way he can learn

By Hiranthi Fernando

Lalitha RamanujanSeveral famous people, such as Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Nelson Rockefeller, General George Patton and Whoopi Goldberg, to name a few, are said to have suffered from a learning disability, often known as the ‘hidden handicap’. However, they learned to cope and went on to excel in their chosen fields. "Students with Learning Disability are capable of achieving up to their full potential if they are taught using appropriate techniques designed to meet their learning styles and educational needs," says Lalitha Ramanujan, Director of the Alpha to Omega Learning Centre in Madras. "If a child cannot learn the way you teach, then teach him in a way he can learn."

Ms. Lalitha Ramanujan who qualified in teaching children with Learning Disability, at the University of Minnesota, has done an internship at the Learning Disability Centre there. Since 1988, when the Alpha to Omega Learning Centre was opened, she has been engaged in this work. She is now in Sri Lanka on a short visit to conduct a seminar on "Learning Difficulties", in association with the Learning Centre recently opened in Colombo by a group of teachers and parents.

According to Ms. Ramanujan, children with Learning Disability are by no means mentally retarded. Most of them are bright and possess average or above average intelligence. They seem to face difficulties in sorting incoming information received by their senses and expressing it. A student’s achievement in some areas is not in keeping with his or her overall intelligence. He is thus viewed as an under performer.

Both children and young adults are sometimes seen as lazy or unmotivated when they are not able to learn easily in their environment. This is often due to a Learning Disability.

Children with learning disabilities may have a combination of difficulties in one or more areas. Typically, Learning Disability affects five general areas and is manifested by a wide range of symptoms. In spoken language, there may be delays, disorders and deviations in listening or speaking. In the written language, difficulties with reading, writing and spelling are seen. For instance, confusion between some letters or numbers such as ‘b’ and ‘d’, ‘u’ and ‘n’, reading ‘was’ for ‘saw’ or ‘ 12’ for ‘21’. In Arithmetic there could be difficulties in calculations or understanding basic concepts. Reasoning skills may be limited due to difficulties in organising and integrating thoughts. Poor memory power is also a factor often seen in these children.

Difficulties in following directions, eye-hand coordination causing problems in dressing, buttoning etc., late or immature speech development, late motor development are some difficulties that are especially noted in young children. Hyperactivity, inattention and perceptual coordination may also be associated with Learning Disabilities but are not LD themselves.

Ms. Ramanujan says that parents often do not realise that their children have a Learning Disability until it is too late. A child is capable of doing much better if appropriate help is provided at the earliest.

In children with Learning Disabilities, the normal milestones of development could be delayed. They also may have difficulties in activities like sorting beads into sizes and colours, using scissors, doing up buttons, tying laces and so on. If these difficulties persist and affect the child’s day to day life, help should be sought. Early intervention could help immensely.

At around seven years, when academic pressure on the child increases, the problems may get aggravated, Ms. Ramanujan explained. Unaware of the problem, teachers complain of poor performance or hyperactivity. Thus, pressure builds up and could lead to secondary problems such as behavioural or emotional problems. According to Ms. Ramanujan, research is still being done on the root causes of Learning Disability, which has been found to be more common among boys. "Structurally, there is nothing wrong with the child," she said. "It is just the way the brain cells function"

Once the problem has been recognized, one has to look out for the symptoms which vary from one child to another," further explained Ms. Ramanujan. Some children are able to manage with some remedial classes after the regular school programme, while others may need to be taught in a specially designed programme. An educational assessment is necessary to determine the strengths, weaknesses and preferred learning styles of the student.

Professional psychological assessment could help in identifying areas of difficulty and in coping with any behavioural or emotional problems that might accompany the Learning Disability. All aspects of the disability needs to be understood by parents and teachers. School authorities should be informed of the situation. Ms. Ramanujan says that it is necessary to work on the strengths and not just stress on the weaknesses. She emphasised that appropriate remedial help should be sought as early as possible.

At the Alpha to Omega Learning Centre in Madras, about twenty five students attend a full time course while 50 - 60 students take part time remedial courses. A combination of three teaching programmes are used, these being, multi-sensory, cumulative and phonic based instruction for reading and spelling, Dr. B. Hornby’s Teaching Approach and Orton Gillingham Teaching Approach.

Before a child is admitted to the school, the parents are interviewed, after which the child is given an assessment. According to the needs of the particular child, the necessary remedial assistance is given. The school has five age groups, of which the final group is working for the Advanced Level Examination. Ms. Ramanujan says that last year, the first two students sent up for the A/L exam from the centre were both successful and one gained university admittance. At the Ordinary Level Examination too, the batch of six students who entered, were all successful.

The Alpha to Omega Learning Centre also prepares children for the National Open School Certificate which is a public examination conducted by the Central Government of India in New Delhi. At this Examination, children have the freedom to select any five subjects.

They could even select two vocational subjects. Thus if a child with a learning disability is unable to cope with any particular subject, he still has a chance to further his education. This examination is accepted for university admissions.

Ms. Ramanujan first came to Sri Lanka three years ago, for a seminar and workshop on Learning Disability, sponsored by the Inner Wheel Club. A group of parents of children with learning disabilities formed themselves into an Association, which sponsored two more workshops. With her assistance and guidance, a Learning Centre has been set up by a group of teachers.

At present, fifteen children who attend regular school in the morning, attend remedial classes in the afternoon. Each child is given one to one instruction for about forty-five minutes by the staff of three teachers at the Centre.

The seminar currently being held at the ‘Organisation of Professional Associations’ is organised by the Learning Centre and targets teachers as well as mothers who are willing to learn. An awareness talk has also been arranged for teachers of two leading boys schools in Colombo.

According to Ms. Ramanujan it is important for teachers to understand that children with a Learning Disability are not lazy or backward but have a genuine problem.

They need adequate training with long-term goals that are geared for not just school issues but also day to day life.

‘Pansale Piyatuma’ at the age of 95

By W. T. A. Leslie Fernando

About six decades ago, a youngpriest was at the centre of controversy and much criticised for offering Lotus flowers at the sanctuary at a wedding Mass of one of his relatives.

Since then much water has flowed under the bridges in Sri Lanka. Now national culture is given its due place in the Church. And the young priest involved is hailed as an exponent of indigenous culture.

Fr. JayakodyFr. Marcelline Jayakody: his hymns are simple and close to the people
He is none other than Fr. Marcelline Jayakody OMI, the well known musician, lyrist, poet, author, journalist and patriot. On June 03, 1997 Fr. Marcelline Jayakody will reach the 95th milepost in the journey of life.

Fr.Jayakody was born on June 03, 1902 at Dankotuwa on the outskirts of Maha Oya. His mother was a Buddhist converted to Christianity with her marriage. Nevertheless while being a Catholic she had not given up her simple and serene way of life guided and moulded by Buddhism. His father was a native physician who was not bent on making money. He too led a simple life.

With such a background and upbringing it is natural for Fr. Marcelline, even as a Catholic priest to be drawn to Buddhist culture, the Buddhist temple and Buddhist prelates. He take pride in being called "Pansale Piyatuma" (Catholic priest of the Buddhist temple).

In one parish, the people who belonged to a certain caste had refused to accept Fr. Marcelline as he belonged to a different caste. Fr. Marcelline was adamant and did not move out. Later he had won over the parishioners and served in the parish without difficulty.

Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was invited to train the choir to perform the song "Namo Namo Matha" for the first independence anniversary in 1949 as the composer Ananda Samarakone had gone abroad. Fr. Marcelline Jayakody rose to the occasion. He trained the students of Musaeus College and presented it to the acclaim by all. There is no doubt that this magnificient performance had paved the way for "Namo Namo Matha" being adopted later as the National Anthem of the country.

Fr. Marcelline Jayakody has studied at Shanthinikethan, the famous oriental arts centre set up by Rabindranath Tagore, and also served in Jaffna. While in Jaffna he wrote a series of articles to "The Times" on Hindu culture, the simple and serene life of people and the beauty of Jaffna. Later these articles were released as a book named "In Search of Ceylon". But undoubtedly his greatest contribution was to the Church is in the sphere of Church music.

The earliest attempt at an indigenous form of Catholic music was made by Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez during the Dutch times. He did not follow Western melodies but made use of Carnatic ragas and folk music for his hymns. During British times his compositions were superseded by the hymns of European missionaries set to Latin and Western tunes.

In 1940 and 50’s, around Independence there was a national renaissance that had its effect on the Church Fr. Marcelline Jayakody too especially as parish priest of Maggona began to produce outstanding hymns like "Ronata Vadina Bingu Obai", "Nelum Pipeela pethi Visireela" and "Suvanda Jale Pipi Kumudiniye" with a national flavour. These magnificient hymns with their superb lyrics, sweet music and local setting captivated the hearts of all.

Fr. Marcelline Jayakody’s hymns are simple and close to people, appreciated even by Non-Catholics. They contain both the Christian aspects and national outlook. They are a striking example for cultural adaptation in its true perspective. The majority of the popular hymns sung today in churches are compositions of Fr. Marcelline Jayakody.

Ven. Ittapane Dhammalankara Thera, a Buddhist priest has written a book on the life of Fr. Marcelline Jayakody titled "Malpale Upan Pansale Piyatuma." This is the first book in the whole world written by a Buddhist prelate on a Catholic priest. This work is presented in such a manner that it has provided Fr. Marcelline Jayakody an opportunity to speak out his mind.

An active member of the Hela Havula Fr. Marcelline Jayakody is the present President of the Sinhala Poets’ Association. He has been awarded "Kalasuri" title by the State and "Kithu Nandana Pranamaya" by the Church for his outstanding contributions to arts and culture in Sri Lanka for over six decades.

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