Narendra Modi's insensitive remark on dyslexia reaffirms India's narrow understanding of learning disorders

  • PM Modi has been criticised for seemingly taking a jibe at the Gandhis by making a reference to dyslexia and children who have been labelled as dyslexic.

  • Modi’s statement is an apt picture of all that’s wrong with our education system and our country in general.

  • Policy-makers themselves need to receive proper education, knowledge and training before rolling things out to the masses.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been criticised for seemingly taking a jibe at the Gandhis — Rahul and Sonia — by making a reference to dyslexia and children who have been labelled as dyslexic. Modi’s passing remark was insensitive, but it’s made worse by the occasion on which he made it: a competition called the “Smart India Hackathon”.

The stigma associated with mental health and associated diagnostic labels is still strong in India. Before one addresses Modi’s comments, it is important to note that a few things were wrong with the student’s presentation.

The BTech student from Uttarakhand said her project will help “dyslexic children”. One of the major hurdles in fighting the stigma surrounding mental health is the manner in which individuals are reduced to nothing but labels. In everyday conversations, we do not make passing remarks about that “diabetic friend” or the “asthmatic boss”. We just acknowledge that there are individuals diagnosed with diabetes, asthma, or some other chronic, physical condition. So, why are children with the label of “dyslexia” not considered to be anything else but that?

 Narendra Modis insensitive remark on dyslexia reaffirms Indias narrow understanding of learning disorders

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

Diagnostic labels help individuals access public services and gain access to communities of individuals with the same label. However, ongoing research indicates that getting a diagnostic label does not guarantee getting the right treatment, and it often does more harm than good for it is often associated with worry and stigma (Corrigan, 2004). Many-a-times, people fail to see beyond labels. Moreover, two people with the same label may not require the same treatment as their cluster of symptoms may differ.

Unfortunately, a lot of mental health professionals and educators overlook the damages that a disempowering label can cause, and choose to use it liberally — without realising that under the garb of providing an explanation for certain symptoms, they are actually making that individual more vulnerable to negative biases and stigma.

Coming back to the student’s presentation, in an unintended irony, she mentioned the film Taare Zameen Par — a movie that raised awareness among audiences and drove home the message that children should not be defined by their disabilities, and that any disability should not be viewed as being integral to a child’s identity. However, by laughing at Modi’s remark along with the audience, the student failed to practice what she was preaching, and reduced a child to a mere label.

How can one build a product to help a group when one does not display a basic level of empathy for that group in the first place? We are aware of the ridicule students with special needs are often subjected to by their peers, teachers, parents and society at large. Modi deserves no accolades for the statement he made, but the audience’s reaction was equally loathsome.

Another important point to note is that dyslexia is no longer a preferred term of use. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or the DSM-V) that was published in 2013, dyslexia is now sub-categorised as a “specific learning disorder”. Specific learning disorder is now an umbrella term for mathematics, reading, and writing expression disorders – previously, the DSM-IV classified these as separate diagnoses. Specific learning disorder with impairment in reading is the alternate term for dyslexia, and it includes possible deficits in word reading accuracy, reading rate or fluency, and reading comprehension. It is unfortunate that Smart India Hackathon, a nationwide platform of innovation for young minds, does not encourage its participants to stay up-to-date with the right vocabulary.

An individual no longer needs to be subject to IQ tests or neuropsychological assessments of cognitive processing skills to receive a diagnosis of specific learning disorder, which means that there is no link between this processing disorder and intelligence. Most parents struggle to understand that. They make the mistake of attributing the child’s inability to perform tasks of reading or writing to traits like “laziness” or “stupidity”, and they end up feeling frustrated when their child is not able to perform as well as his or her peers. Educators and school psychologists find it really difficult to work through these issues because, by and large, we are living in a world where everyone has a high drive for achievement and no one wants to be left behind in the competition to reach the top.

Modi’s statement — that if the student’s presentation helped a 40/50-year-old man, then that would make the mother of such a child happy — is an apt picture of all that’s wrong with our education system and our country in general. Things that are wrong with the Indian education system could be a debate for another day, but drawing simply from that one statement of Modi’s, it is evident that appreciation is always for achievement and not for effort.

Children, with or without special needs, must obtain a certain rank or achieve certain marks in order to make their parents proud. Rather than being happy with the amount of time and effort the child is putting into any activity, the focus is on how well the child has performed. It is, therefore, no surprise that 37 percent of students across colleges in India are diagnosed with depression or other mental illnesses (Deb, 2016). Managing expectations is a struggle that only intensifies as individuals move to higher levels of education.

This is not the first time our government has displayed its narrow understanding of mental health. In June 2018, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare faced a lot of flak for putting up a poster on depression that not only attempted to over-simplify the condition, but also conveyed insensitive, misleading information. Modi’s recent statements reaffirm that adoption of new innovations or implementation of new policies cannot bring about any significant change unless we invest in changing the mind-sets of the people in society. For that to happen, policy-makers themselves need to receive proper education, knowledge and training before rolling things out to the masses.

The author is a Mumbai-based counsellor and psychotherapist.



Corrigan, Patrick. “How stigma interferes with mental health care.” American Psychologist, Vol 59 (7), October 2004, pp. 614-625.

Deb. et. al.

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Updated Date: Mar 07, 2019 09:44:05 IST