CEO Thoughts: Successful UNITE SpLD 2020 Conference

The two days of the 6th edition of the UNITE SPLD Conference went by very quickly. This conference was intended to be a regular platform for like-minded researchers, educators, advocates and parents from Singapore and the region to come together to share experiences, knowledge, and best practices in support of students and individuals with dyslexia and other SpLDs. But I am delighted that despite it being a first-ever virtual conference for DAS, we left the event with many new friends and much more!

But first, we must remember that this conference was organised with COVID-19 as the backdrop. Our hearts go out to the millions all over the world impacted by the virus both in terms of their health and their economies. But this has also been a period where there were tremendous examples of the positive response of the human spirit to adversity. At the Dyslexia Association of Singapore, I am tremendously grateful to colleagues who made the momentous effort to transit over 3,000 students to Home-Based Learning at the end of March. This was a wonderful example of their willingness to embrace a new environment and rise to the challenge. And the outcome was that our students had the opportunity to continue their learning despite having to stay at home!

Likewise, this virtual conference and many other virtual conferences around the world are good examples of how dyslexia and SpLD community have responded to the situation, came together and said “No …. we will not let the virus stop us from continuing with our lives, continuing with our work and it will certainly not stop us from learning!” I call upon everyone to join us to say to the coronavirus “No you will not stop me” as Singapore and the world endeavours to live in a new normal! I thank DAS colleagues Geetha Shantha Ram, Deborah Hewes, and their teams for responding brilliantly to make this conference the success that it was.

Here is one of the many compliments I received for them:

“I tuned in to the conference these past two days. I would like to congratulate all staff involved in an incredibly good conference and thank them for their efforts.”

“I would like to acknowledge the incredible support of the DAS Executive Committee led by our President Mr Eric Lee, the immense support of the Singapore government through the Ministry of Education and that of many wonderful donors and supporters for making the work of the DAS possible.”

“And what conference would be successful without outstanding speakers. Our first keynote on Day 1 was from Fintan O’Regan. Fintan last spoke to DAS in 2010 and 2011 and I remembered enjoying it very much. I was once again not disappointed!”

A participant said to me: “Fintan’s Keynote is very good. The ease and interesting way he is presenting a very complex topic is amazing.”

On Day 1, we also heard from Professor Angela Fawcett who has been instrumental in helping to build research vigour at DAS for the past decade. Angela remains the only recipient of the Jimmy Daruwalla Award. Dr Jimmy Daruwalla was the late first President of the DAS and his award is presented to only those who have made an immense contribution to our work for dyslexics here in Singapore. And that is Angela! Then there was Massarat and Rameeza Khan from Maharashtra and Harini Ramanujan from Madras, who have done wonderful work in India. And there was Dr Kristiantini Dewi and her colleagues whose achievement in raising awareness of dyslexia in a very vast Indonesia cannot be overstated! And we were also delighted by the sharing from our friends in Singapore including Dr Tan Wah Pheow from Temasek Polytechnic, Dr Elizabeth Ow Yeong from NIE, Damaris Carlisle from the LaSalle College of the Arts just to name a few.

Day 2 was just as good with presentations from Dr Malt Joshi, Dr Julie Washington, Carol Allen and many more! The feedback I received included:

“Wow! Julie Washington is really good. Her topic on poverty and learning and dialect Load are all so relevant here in this city!!”

“Today I have the chance to join the conference. It is really very good and the speakers really excellence.”

“Personally, enjoyed Fintan O’Regan and Carol Allen very much. They are encouraging in their tone and yet have enough years of evidence or interaction to support the stance they adopt in dealing with kids with dyslexia, ADHD, and the various traits and they remain a POSITIVE voice and beacon of HOPE for our kids in their way they share and approach the issues. The other speakers were wonderful too, but as a parent, the two of them spoke deeply to me.”

I am so sorry I am not able to list all the presenters for these two days! But what a wonderful community this is for dyslexia and related SpLDs. And this brings me back to the objectives of the DAS and the UNITE SpLD series of conferences.

At DAS, we told ourselves, we should not just be teaching children basic literacy skills, we must develop our curriculum to support children in advance literacy as well as in other academic and non-academic subjects. And to do this, we must invest and build a pool of expertise here in Singapore. And the work of this pool of expertise must be supported by good research! And the UNITE SpLD series of conferences was intended to build a community which will come together regularly to share their research, to share their best practice or to share how they have overcome their learning difference! I guess I should share these two feedbacks which I hope have been and will be the experience of all participants going forward:

“This is my first time attending the UNITE SpLD conference, and I wouldn’t have known about it until I chanced upon it on Facebook. I feel like I’ve missed out on a lot, not having attended in the past! I love how it’s online this year because it’s so accessible to me this way, and so easy to attend (just turn on the laptop and log in); it would be difficult usually for me to get leave for full days to attend in-person. I love the flexibility of the programme and the timing is perfect: half-day with time to watch videos and learn at our time. I love the accessibility of the content: full PowerPoint slides and videos available for us to download on the spot so we can refer to them when we need to during the presentations and taking down good notes via our laptops on Word (something that may not be that possible during an in-person session). The presenters were engaging and funny and knew their stuff, and such good representation from all over, too! The whole conference, I feel, was extremely well-organised, with links and directions and instructions all clearly laid out in advance for all the attendees. I feel I’ve stumbled across a gem of a conference and will definitely be on the lookout and eagerly awaiting next years. Thank you so much to all!!”

“The UNITE SpLD conference 2020 team deserves a standing ovation for all their efforts and hard work in organising a brilliant conference. All the sessions that I attended were highly informative and interesting. I feel getting up at 5 am because of the difference in the time zone to attend the online conference was worth every second! Please keep up the trend of online conferences so more people can attend from all over the world and make the most of such opportunities.”

We are delighted too and look forward to many more such gatherings of like-minded people in the future! But we also remind ourselves that there is always room for improvement. For example, conferences are about interaction and networking for the participants and how can we provide this via a virtual conference. We must explore how we can do this. A participant wanted a “dedicated breakout session or stream for parents”. We must certainly work on this too! So onwards towards an even better UNITE SpLD Conference in 2021!

Lee Siang is the Chief Executive Officer of the Dyslexia Association of Singapore. He regularly notes down his thoughts on the DAS Blog.

Learn more about Lee Siang here!