Tuesday, January 28

Making a difference for dyslexics


One of Yong’s most satisfying rides so far – up Muktinath in the Mustang region by the Tibetan Plateau, 2,400m above sea level. He spent two weeks in Nepal, accompanied by Australian friend Lee Broome.

AFTER beating the odds to overcome his learning disorder, dyslexic Dick Yong has made it his life’s mission to raise awareness of the disability affecting millions of adults and children throughout the world.

The Kuching-born 36-year-old had a tough childhood, struggling with dyslexia – a specific learning disability in reading. In school, he had difficulties fitting in and was lagging behind as a result.

But those early hard knocks steeled him and gave him a purpose in life. By turning adversities into opportunities to better himself, Yong has found the strength to face a world that sees itself as different from people with disabilities such as dyslexia, among others.

Since overcoming his handicap, he has embarked on a global quest “to educate the world on the different universe of dyslexia”.

Growing up, Yong had experienced the pain of not being able to learn words and numbers, let alone alphabets, due to his learning disorder, and how it saddened his mother for not knowing what to do to help him get better.

Yong at a school without electricity on the outskirts of Laos.

“When I was young, I did think I was stupid because the child next to me could read and immediately understand what he was reading but for me, I tried reading multiple times and still didn’t always make sense. For that, I was often misunderstood to be slow or simply too naughty to pay attention during class,” he told thesundaypost.

At age 12, he still couldn’t read properly. But he managed to overcome this problem on his own around age 15 by associating letters and numbers creatively – like 6 is yellow, Digi, and 9 is blue, Celcom. This was among the methods he used to overcome his difficulties in reading.

At that time, he also discovered he was talented in sports and scoring many top positions in competitions gave him the courage and confidence to tackle his learning issues.

By the time he sat for Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia, he was already making steady progress in studies. He managed to do well in the national exam and even surprised himself by getting straight A’s. This gave him a big confidence and morale booster.

Yong at the Tibetan refugee camp where he volunteered to teach for a day.

A lament

Yong, who is a director in a venture capital company/investment firm, lamented that in the 90s, dyslexia was unheard of in Sarawak and there was no support or help for afflicted children.

In fact, his parents were asked to voluntarily take him out of school. Yong had to go through five schools as his grades, the schools feared, would affect their overall performance.

When he was 20, he went to further his studies in Australia. It was during an exam that he found out dyslexic students there were given extra time to finish the tests and he was interested to find out more.

“That was because I could use the extra time. So I went to the office to check what dyslexia is and got my ‘official’ diagnosis as a dyslexic when I was 23,” he remembered.

Yong said he was lucky to have been able to overcome his disability and carry on with his life but noted that those whose parents had given up on them were most likely to fall victim to social ills or end up in jail and being illiterate, they also could not get jobs.


Access to support

Now Sarawakians with the learning disorder have access to support from the Dyslexia Association of Sarawak (DASwk) of which Yong is a member. The association, formed in 2005, has helped many dyslexic children.

DASwk has developed effective instructional methodologies such as SMARTER phonics and foniks PINTAR programmes for children, including emerging and struggling readers, to learn to read and write in English and BM.

Yong (left) at Sipar Cambodia, an NGO that helps distribute books for poor children to read.

“There was also a study done in Sweden and America which showed 50 per cent of people in jail and another 50 per cent of substance abusers had literacy problems and could not read and write at their age.

“As for us, we have programmes to help inmates in the local prison. This is a serious problem – if we don’t save them, we’ll be wasting our talents  (Dyslexics are usually creative and  innovative thinkers).  If we don’t do anything about it, the situation will eventually evolve into social problems,” he stressed.

Hence, to create awareness of dyslexia, he is touring the world on his high powered BMW GS bike to educate people on the affliction and how those affected can be helped.

“This is because one in five children is dyslexic worldwide and many don’t know it. I want to help make a difference to their future by creating awareness in many places around the world through a solo bike trip I call ‘Ride for Dyslexia’,” he said.

Yong shipped his bike to Kuala Lumpur in December last year. The ride is divided into five sectors – Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Europe, the Americas and Australia, then back to Kuching over land via Indonesia.

He has completed the first sector comprising Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Tibet and India. He had to make a trip back to Kuching to get spare parts as his bike broke down towards the end of the India leg.

He plans to continue his ride once his bike is fixed and move on to Central Asia, stopping by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, then to Europe with London as the final stop.

Subsequently, he will ship his bike to America, touring the region before moving to Australia, East Timor and Borneo Island to get back to Kuching.

He said he couldn’t estimate his destination arrival times as some areas were isolated and hard to reach on bike, not forgetting border control issues.

“Moving from country to country, there are different requirements for bringing in a bike. Some need extra permission and documents which can delay up to days.”

At each stop, he will meet the local Ministry of Education, which will link him to local schools or learning associations for talks on dyslexia. He will also inform them of the programmes available in Sarawak.

Yong said the response was good and some of the places he visited were even thinking of sending their teachers to the association in Kuching for training.

Yong with Nepali children he befriended.

Creating awareness

During his globe-biking, he discovered many places, especially third world countries, were unaware of dyslexia.

He felt his ‘Ride for Dyslexia’ had been effective in raising awareness and the people he met were keeping in touch with him.

“I decided to use the ride to create awareness because I wanted to do something different. People are used to the usual fund-raising charity sales, dinners and selling dinner tickets. I want more people to understand what dyslexia is and how they can help.

“Plus, I love travelling – so it all works out. I can also help promote and put Sarawak on the world map,” he said.

On the experience of riding alone, especially the fears and the challenges, he said, “Many people are asking whether I’m afraid of being robbed and things like that. So far, the locals I’ve met are friendly and welcoming. Some have offered me a place to stay and even food which help keep my costs down.”

When he was in Nepal at the end of July, he went to the Tibetan refugee camp and stayed there for three days and two nights.

“The people were kind to let me stay in their homes for free and even gave me food to eat,” he recalled.

He also learned about the cultures, traditions and customs of the locals and shared with them what Sarawak had to offer.

“I brought along the Sarawak flag and they were curious about what flag it was. Many of them have never heard of Sarawak before. It was an eye-opening experience.”

On identifying dyslexic children, he said if they had problems stringing letters into words, were able to read but forget after 10 minutes and mix up vowels when they reached seven or eight years old, then their parents should bring them for assessment.

“Once confirmed with dyslexia, they will attend a three-month intervention. After that, they should be able to read and return to their regular schools.”

Ploughing through a muddy road on the way to the Mustang region.

Interesting exercise

According to Yong, one of the interesting exercises for dyslexics is rope skipping as kids with the affliction cannot co-ordinate well and are unable to jump on time when the rope hits the floor.

To him though, the biggest challenge is still getting parents to accept their children are dyslexic and let them get help.

“The brains of dyslexic people are wired differently – they are mostly gifted artistically or in sports. It’s not an illness but something we are born with. We just think in a different way.”

Yong said many famous people like Disney founder Walt Disney, actors Tom Cruise and Kiera Knightley, Singapore founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, and Malaysian artist Vince Low were dyslexic but could still contribute well to society.

He expressed the hope that more people would get to know about dyslexia and that it could be overcome.