Little Shirleen Mwendwa spoke fluent English, but couldn’t put it on paper. She had trouble recognising letter sounds, differentiating letters with almost similar formation and omitted words or substituted others in a sentence. She was forced to do remedial classes to keep up with her peers. It was exhausting. Some of her classmates, friends and even teachers laughed and scolded her. Others labelled her unintelligent, lazy, slow-learner, and careless. She suffered from low self-esteem. The constant berating from her teachers for lack of thoroughness and low concentration only depreciated her confidence.
At nine years, her parents took her for counselling thinking it was a psychological concern. “The therapist identified that Shirleen exhibited low self-esteem and whenever she gave her something written, she could neither read fluently nor comprehend the questions. That is when she recommended us to visit Dyslexia Organisation Kenya for assessment,” says Josephine Kinya, her mother.
A series of tests, which included memory, spelling, vision and reading skills later confirmed that her first-born daughter was dyslexic. This was startling, though it was a relief to finally understand there was an underlying problem that had been stifling her excellence.
“It was the beginning of a journey for the whole family. We wanted to make sure Shirleen felt supported and understood that the condition was only challenge and wouldn’t inhibit her ability to lead a normal life,” says Josephine.
Helping Shirleen adjust meant making major changes. Her parents had to enrol her into a school that was well-suited in catering for her special needs. She joined Kitengela International School and her family had to relocate in order to be close to the institution. “We wanted to ensure she got home early to be able to finish her homework and have time to rest. We also had to resize our budget since her school fees tripled when we switched from the 8-4-4 curriculum to the British system, which is crucial for her needs,” says the mother of three.
This eased off the anxiety, stress and pressure of performing from Shirleen.She started experiencing a feeling of success and self-value. Early this year she sat for her Ed-excel international examination and passed. “It’s the first time she has won a prize in her entire schooling experience and she is elated about it,” says her proud mother.
Shirleen has since accepted who she is and launched a campaign to create awareness in the community where dyslexia is not given enough attention. Her campaign dubbed Together Let Us End Dyslexia Stigma, also saw her petition President Uhuru Kenyatta to acknowledge Kenya has dyslexic children who need special attention and deserve fair education opportunity. She also urged the government to include dyslexia learning aid curriculum in teachers training colleges that train them on reading instruction based upon a systematic and explicit understanding of language structure, including phonics eg Structured Literacy, Orton-Gillingham, Simultaneous Multisensory and Explicit Phonic.
Her concern is that dyslexia children should be given more hours during exams and allow oral comprehension. Also schools, libraries and labs facilities should be built for children with dyslexia complete with learning aid. Her petition further urged the Government to promote talent focus learning approach.
The nurturing support has provided Shirleen with the space she needed to thrive. She is an award-winning pageant queen who currently holds the Little Miss Kenya, best talent crown. Knowing that there are no limits to how far she can go, Shirleen has delved into the world of sports where she plays tennis and loves swimming. Her heart also beats to music. Singing and playing the guitar add to the pack of passions, besides bead work and weaving.
Shirleen’s relationship with her two younger siblings has greatly improved. Her brothers are keen to her needs and are always happy to help with school work.