Dyslexics are people who face difficulty reading, writing or spelling. At least, this is the official definition given by the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS). But talk to Singapore’s youngest YouTube star, Dr Jia Jia, and you’ll likely get a very different definition.
Enthuses Dr Jia Jia, actually named Chua Jin Sen, a cheerful bespectacled Primary 4 Maha Bodhi student, “People who have dyslexia are special in their own unique way ― it’s like a gift. But many people struggle with it and it can be hard at first, but it will get better in the end.”
Chances are, you’ll probably have heard of famous dyslexics like the late former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, actor Tom Cruise and billionaire Richard Branson.
Dr Jia Jia’s mum — who only wants to be known as Mrs Chua — first discovered that her then 5-year-old son had the condition back in preschool, when she and her hubby was called in to speak with her son’s teachers. “We had a feeling that they had something serious to tell us and both my husband and I were actually thinking it was going to be only good words.”
“I was in disbelief. He is a very smart boy and I just could not accept the news at that time ― his father was also shocked.”
To their dismay, the teacher told her that she noticed Dr Jia Jia was struggling in class. He had trouble recognising letters and couldn’t write his name. Chua says, “[Jin Sen] was so street smart that when the teacher instructed them to write their names on the top of the [activity sheet], he will look around and try to locate his water bottle, [which] was labelled with his name.” The teacher noticed on multiple occasions that he was trying to imitate the words.
Initially saddened by news of her son’s learning condition, Chua recalls weeping at the dining table. She explains, “I was in disbelief. He is a very smart boy and I just could not accept the news at that time ― his father was also shocked.” Dr Jia Jia gives his take on the challenges of being a dyslexic:
We saw the YouTube video you did on dyslexia, called My TGIF. Are there any plans to make it into a movie? How did you come up with the idea?
Dr Jia Jia Yes, we might make it to a movie. As you can see, there’re a lot of people outside struggling as dyslexics. Their dads and mums think they are stupid. But they are not. Just because they have dyslexia doesn’t mean they are dumb. They keep [punishing] their kids and calling them names but they don’t know that their kids are dyslexic.
Some dyslexics have problems with languages, others have problems with maths. How about you, which subjects are the toughest?
Dr Jia Jia English, when I was in Primary 1 and 2, I found it was very difficult. Chinese was difficult too. After primary three, English was easier but I still had trouble differentiating the nouns, adverbs and the adjectives. For mathematics, it was okay for me from Primary 1 till last year. Now, I find myself struggling a bit. For Chinese, I can speak it well but I am bad at remembering, writing and recognising the words.
Find out the one thing Dr Jia Jia wants to change about school…
Your mum mentioned that you had trouble recalling letters or spelling your name. Do you recall that experience?
Dr Jia Jia Yes I have trouble with some English letters, especially B and D, so I ended up guessing what they were. [My dad] used [mouldable] clay to get me to make the letters [of the alphabet] and when he said B or D, I couldn’t remember what they looked like. In dyslexia, they taught us to use our hands, in a thumbs up [gesture] on either hand to differentiate between the two letters but I kept forgetting. I think I was 6 when I finally learnt it.
What do the DAS teachers usually teach you in these classes?
Dr Jia Jia They taught us how to handle it. They would use flash cards to read out the letters and how to pronounce the sounds of these letters. The class was very small and only four people in one, but I stopped going to the classes this year.
“I will tell him that being dyslexic isn’t that bad, that dyslexic is a gift and if he has it he should make good use of it.”
Your parents must concerned with your studies. So, who is the stricter one at home?
Dr Jia Jia My dad doesn’t really care too much about our schoolwork. He is more concerned with my acting and videos. My mum does [focus on] our schoolwork, but she’s not really that strict.
What advice would you give a friend if he is diagnosed with dyslexia?
Dr Jia Jia I will tell him that being dyslexic isn’t that bad, that dyslexic is a gift and if he has it he should make good use of it. And if he comes to me to ask for help with schoolwork, I will ask him to go and ask my mum. (Laughs)
What co-curricular activity (CCA) are you part of, in school?
Dr Jia Jia I joined the Boy Scouts but I realise I like rugby better. I think I chose wrongly [because] I dislike camping ― I always feel homesick.
Read on to find out what Dr Jia Jia’s ambition is…
If there is one thing you can change about school, what will it be?
Dr Jia Jia I want the teachers to spend more time and pay more attention to the students who are struggling in class. I would like teachers to be more patient with the students in their class. Pay more a bit more attention, like once you complete the chapter, ask [the class if] they can understand or get the meaning. Some [teachers do] ask but not always. But the teachers have never scolded us for asking a lot of questions. Like me, I like asking a lot of questions and they never scolded me for doing so. Oh, and I feel that there should be no homework. The new rule will be no more homework ― and easier exams. (Laughs)
Talking about exams, some dyslexic students get extra time. Do you?
Dr Jia Jia I do qualify for extra time during exams because of my dyslexia, but I don’t use it because I don’t want to.
“I would like teachers to be more patient with the students in their class. Pay more a bit more attention...”
Any downsides to being a YouTube star?
Dr Jia Jia I don’t really like it when people say, “Oh, you are that young boy from [YouTube]!” Sometimes, they will recognise me on the streets than they will ask, “Can I take a picture with you?” But, I don’t really like to take pictures. There was once an ex-classmate who asked for over 200 signatures. I didn’t tell my mum. He said his mother need or wanted to give to other people and asked if I could give my signature. I said, “Er, let me think about it?” I thought, 200 signatures?! Are you crazy?! (Laughs)
Finally, what do you want to be in the future and why?
Dr Jia Jia I want to be the Minister of Defence because I like fighting. Not that I want war with other countries lah. But since I was young until now, I like to fight using my toys and I’d like to [get] people to defend Singapore. I don’t mind being the Education Minister either, so that there will be no school. Or at least make it more activity based instead. And I wish that we have no homework. It’s the best. So we have more time to play! (Laughs)
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