When I was seven, I was diagnosed with dyslexia. I have lived most of my life in Asia, so I have first-hand experience with the stigmas attached to learning disabilities here.
I’ve heard things like, “No way – you’re too smart to have it,” and “But your parents are so smart.”
Singapore is not alone in having stigmas associated with learning disabilities. SAS high school psychologist Dr. Jeffrey Devens said, “There is a stigma everywhere you go.”
Sara Heerens, one of the learning support teachers at SAS, said, “I think there tends to be a stigma no matter where you are. I think it’s because it’s admitting weaknesses.” But she said we need to get past the stigmas. “Everybody has strengths and weaknesses and it’s embracing how you learn and how you’re different.”
Though there may be a stigmas everywhere, compared to Western nations such as the United States, the stigma attached to learning disorders is definitely more prevalent in Asian societies, particularly in Singapore where there is so much pressure to perform at a certain level.
In 2009, a survey was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that in the U.S., 18% of boys and 9% of females aged 5-17 have been diagnosed with either a learning disability or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
However, in Singapore, that number is much lower: only 2.7% of the total student population in the local schools has been diagnosed with a learning disorder or ADHD. That statistic may reflect parents’ attitudes more than the actual numbers of affected students. Because of the negative view of learning disabilities here, many parents don’t want their children to be diagnosed.
There is a common term used to cover up these difficulties, according to Dr. Devens. “In Southeast Asia, it’s very common to hear the word ‘saving face’ – and it’s this idea of not wanting to let other people know that there are some sort of difficulties with a student or family. And so sometimes you have situations where families may under report the degree in which kids are struggling in school. Maybe some of it is shame, maybe some of it is embarrassment, maybe some of it is feeling guilty.”
Despite the very obvious cultural stigmas, Singapore is making strides in understanding learning disabilities. Earlier this year, Singapore held an event called “The Purple Parade,” which was an event that was created to celebrate and support Singapore’s special needs community.
However, compared to countries such as the United States, Singapore is still years behind when it comes to supporting students with learning differences.
“They’re (Singapore) school psychologists working in the area are swamped – their caseloads are 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 to 1 psychologist. The level of service and instruction you’re going to be able to provide with those kinds of ratios is going to be so tiny,” Dr. Devens said.
Singapore is home to one of the most academically grueling systems in the world, which adds onto the sort of “disability” taboo that has risen as a result. And though Singapore and other parts of Asia are starting to show some developments in understanding these complex differences, they are still years away from turning what is now known as a “taboo” to something that is simply an aspect of a student’s learning profile.