Focus on invisible disabilities

Fanelo Arens with Chaeli Mycroft, founder of the Chaeli Campaign.

Fanelo Arens remembers learning to write his name in primary school and how, to his surprise, his teacher wasn’t happy with the result – even though it looked fine to him.

The inverted letters that Fanelo’s teacher saw heralded the dyslexia diagnosis that would follow.

Dyslexia is one of several disorders and conditions that are known as invisible disabilities or hidden disabilities because they are not immediately apparent to others.

Although the disability creates a challenge for the person who has it, the reality of the disability can be difficult for others to recognise or acknowledge.

Others may not understand the cause of the problem if they cannot see evidence of it in a visible way.

Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes and asthma are other examples of these disabilities, which are highlighted during International Invisible Disabilities Week, from October 18 to 24.

Fanelo Arens is now a candidate attorney and a board member of Chaeli Campaign, a social justice foundation in Plumstead that works to change society’s views on the capabilities and role of children with disabilities.

Fanelo recalls how after starting remedial education in Grade 2, he realised there might be a more concerning reason for his “special play time” than the one initially given to him.

In the months that followed, he says, he witnessed the increasing frustration of his remedial therapist and struggled with “I am dumb” and “I am lazy” thoughts.

As a child grappling with abstract shapes and alphabet letters, he recalls feeling like it was unnecessary to worry about whether his * ’s and * ’s were perfectly written.

In his mind, he knew what the sounds were but felt there were more important things to learn or worry about.

He says his work would seem correct until he was shown otherwise.

It was when he entered a new school in Grade 3, that Fanelo was diagnosed with dyslexia.

Fortunately for him, he says, his writing difficulties did not affect his ability to understand the concepts he was being taught and he scored high marks.

He mostly coped, he says, by memorising the visual form of the most commonly used words at each level. He would also memorise assigned reading and even large texts before presentations, reading them repeatedly until fluency became more natural.

But as the learning material became more challenging his coping methods proved inadequate.

Moreover, his growing insecurity around reading induced anxiety, stuttering and an overall impaired ability to perform in public.

By Grade 4, his parents sought professional guidance and his teachers were advised to test his true reading capabilities in a private setting. With the professional support, he was able to adapt to a mainstream school system. But he still spent his weekends learning new coping strategies, and his mother would get him to summarise articles from a Sunday newspaper.

Fanelo says it’s important for those with disabilities such as dyslexia to get help during childhood, the earlier the better, because it’s such an important time in a person’s development.

Teachers should advise pupils but not dictate what is possible, he says, recalling how he attended a mainstream high school over the advice of a remedial teacher. He went on to win a scholarship to attend Reddam House Constantia, from where he matriculated.

He then did a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and media at UCT, majoring in editing and writing.

He was aided by computer software that read his notes and texts aloud.

He went on to complete a law degree and landed a position at one of the top law firms in the country.

Almost a year into his legal articles as a candidate attorney he is proud of how far he has come and what he has achieved so far.