Going to university can be a test for anyone, fresh, or not-so-fresh from school. Students are not only expected to adapt to independent study and increased reading loads, but they also have to learn as soon as possible how to “do” the kind of academic writing and academic talk their given field demands. And for those students with dyslexia, this can be particularly challenging.
Dyslexic students are normally no different to their non-dyslexic peers in their understanding of their academic subject, but dyslexia can make things like reading course books, writing essays and remembering lecture points harder to do. And there can also be difficulties for dyslexic students in getting their words and ideas across in seminars and tutorials.
These things are hard partly because of specific cognitive difficulties with processing particular kinds of information, and partly because of the way schools and universities tend to structure and assess learning – through non-interactive lectures and timed, written examination. And because there is a lot of disagreement about what dyslexia actually means in terms of cognitive function, it can also be difficult to agree on what to do about it, in practice.
Grade driven learning
In today’s society being academically literate is particularly valued – with the most successful learner often seen as the one who gets the highest grades. High grades are often thought to go hand-in-hard with hard work, meaning lower grades are often thought to imply a lack of effort and a lack of academic ability – the twin-evils of “laziness” and “stupidity”.
But part of the challenge for dyslexia and learning isn’t so much that dyslexic people can’t keep up with complex ideas, it’s more that they may need to approach tasks in a different way to get the learning to make sense, and to “stick”. So when a student with dyslexia finds their learning preferences don’t fit so well with the learning environments on offer, they will often use additional study aids – such as speech-to-text software, mind-mapping applications and “read and write text help” – in addition to attending regular tutorials with a specialist teacher to work on their academic literacy.
But sometimes dyslexic students (and their peers) feel that using additional study help gives them an an unfair leg-up. This means that although dyslexic students have a right under the law to make use of things – like extra time in exams and specialist tuition – doing so can be a threat to their sense of self-worth and academic identity.
In other words, they can feel like they are not really “intelligent” if they can’t do the work without making use of adjustments. This can lead dyslexic students to play down their difficulties, and to refuse help. And students with dyslexia will sometimes try to go it alone, so to speak, to work hard and “just deal with it” – even though they will be disadvantaged by this approach. This can leave dyslexic students in a lose-lose situation.
Working out when to access support at university is further complicated by the uncertainty of how the students and staff they come across will react to a disclosure of dyslexia. Media representations of dyslexia have tended to be rather sensationalist, and often follow the “dyslexia as a myth” line without care for the details of the studies which they refer to.
Dyslexic students have to be ever-ready to explain what dyslexia means and how it affects them to whomever needs to know. They may need to declare it to their personal tutor one day, to an exams invigilator another, and to their housemate the next. And in each case they need to guess how their declaration will be received – which can be exhausting.
A dyslexic student may also find themselves stuck between contradictory ideas about who they are as a dyslexic person, and what they should be doing about it. And in this sense they internalise the apparent “common-sense view” that they are solely responsible for the difficulties they experience.
So, to dyslexic students who have just begun their university education, it is time for you to rethink the concept of disability – because it is not a dirty word. The disabling aspects of dyslexia are not inside you, but rather they are part of a particular educational set-up and learning environment.
To tackle this, work out which situations at university put you at a disadvantage compared to other students, and make use of any adjustments you need to help you. It’s not an unfair leg-up, it’s simply a small step towards evening the playing field.
You should also make use of specialist dyslexia tutors, because they not only there to help you develop academic skills and confidence, but more importantly they can also help you critically reflect upon what dyslexia means for you and your learning.
And finally, remember you are not to blame for some of the difficulties you may experience in university learning, so be kind to yourself. These difficulties are nothing to do with how worthy you are, or how “clever” you are – and you belong at university just as much as anyone else does.