Today is the last day of October, which is Learning Disabilities and Dyslexia month. There's so many different days and months dedicated to various causes and sometimes it can feel a bit tedious. However, I think it’s a good opportunity to bring up important topics that rarely come up in everyday conversations.
In 2014, at the age of 21, I was diagnosed with specific learning difficulties of a dyslexic nature revolving around weaknesses in working memory and the ability to process visual symbols effectively. I was also diagnosed with visual stress/Irlen syndrome. Irlen syndrome is a perceptual processing disorder. It is not an optical problem. It is a problem with the brain’s ability to process visual information. I have glasses with tinted lenses for this, but I don’t often wear them outside the house because they look a bit like sunglasses and I don’t want to explain my situation to everyone (using Windows 10’s ‘Night Light’ setting whilst wearing my ‘normal’ glasses isn’t as good but still works ok as an alternative!).
I had pretty much always thought that I was slower than most others at school, but I didn't really tell anybody. My grades weren’t always the best considering how much work I put in. I ended up in the ‘special’ class for maths at primary school and the ‘lower’ class for modern foreign languages (!!!) and maths at secondary school (from what I can remember, I don’t particularly enjoy reliving my school days). Somehow, I ended up in the ‘higher’ classes for English literature and language, and managed to work my way up to the ‘higher’ class for German. I remember really wanting to be allowed to use a fountain pen at primary school, but I wasn’t allowed because the teacher said that my handwriting was too bad because I was lazy. Apparently, the teacher thought that shouting at me and repeating the same things over and over would change that. It's interesting because nowadays some people actually compliment my handwriting! Someone once said to me that they’re surprised that I have dyslexia because I have nice handwriting (after lots of practice, and it’s only nice when I have the time and patience!).
I thought that maybe I was slower because of my low-income background. The further I got through education, the more I realised that that probably wasn’t the case. I did some research and realised that I had a lot of the symptoms of dyslexia. These vary from person to person and aren’t necessarily associated with having nice handwriting. Dyslexia causes problems in reading whereas dysgraphia (written expression disorder) causes problems in writing. Dyslexia is a neurological and often genetic condition, and some of my family members also have dyslexia.
In 2014, I finally decided to get a diagnostic assessment whilst studying my Bachelor’s degree at the University of Chester. Sometimes we do seem to overdiagnose and want a diagnosis for everything. However, I think that diagnoses can help us to better understand certain situations and know how to deal with them. I’m grateful for this because many countries aren’t very effective in diagnosing and understanding disabilities. Being entitled to 25% extra time in exams after my diagnosis made a big difference. I had previously not done very well in exams due to running out of time. It was just unfortunate that I had to sit in a different part of the exam hall away from my friends with a big red card laid on my table.
After my diagnosis at the University of Chester, I had a support tutor who taught me different techniques to manage my dyslexia, and I was given a laptop with support software installed on it. I’ll never forget when someone said to me “I want a free laptop too. I wish I had dyslexia.” Likewise, when I was at college, someone once said to me that one good aspect about their parents’ divorce was that they then started to receive Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) that they could use to go shopping. Oh, the ignorance of the privileged. EMA was a weekly £10, £20, or £30 grant depending on students’ annual household income. My EMA covered the cost of my weekly bus fare to college and back. My awful part-time job at Subway paid for everything else. Unsurprisingly, the EMA scheme in England was cancelled in 2010 as part of a programme of budget cuts.
Not long after my diagnosis, I had my first negative experience. One of my lecturers was notorious for upsetting students and even making some cry. The lecturer disregarded my diagnosis and literally told me that I was “too stupid to be at university”. I refused to let the lecturer get any satisfaction from making me cry… I waited until afterwards! I once met a student doing the same degree but who started one year after me. She said that she realised who I am because this lecturer had used my essay as an example of bad work in one class, and had said that I had forgotten everything after returning from my year abroad in Spain (that comment in itself narrowed the options down to about four people). For whatever reason, the lecturer didn’t think to ask my permission to use my work, didn’t make it anonymous, and didn’t consider that I did talk to students in other classes and I would find out.
There were many complaints made about this lecturer, but they never seemed to be taken seriously, and the lecturer is still there. I do find constructive criticism to be useful, but I didn’t really consider this lecturer’s criticism to be very constructive. I think that maybe these kinds of people end up becoming teachers because they like to exploit their power over students. Maybe anyone who makes negative comments (based on academic ability, race, religion, sexuality, size, weight, etc.) think that they motivate others, perhaps they think they’re just funny jokes, maybe they’re insecure about themselves and (unintentionally) take out their frustrations on others, or perhaps they just get a kick out of making others feel bad about themselves (but I don’t want to believe that about people). I can’t think of any other reason why they would say such negative comments. I don’t find negative comments motivating and I don’t know anybody who does. I try not to let negative comments about any aspect of my life get me down, and I try not to let numbers define me, whether they’re my grades or my weight. However, I can be stubborn, and maybe I like to prove nasty people wrong (although I don’t want to validate their making negative comments in an attempt to ‘motivate’ others), which is admittedly maybe a very small part of the reason why I decided to progress to a Master’s degree. Yet, “too stupid to be at university” still resounds in my head. I think it’s really important that educators at all levels (not just early education) are informed about learning disabilities so that students don’t have to face such ignorance.
As soon as I presented my diagnostic assessment report to the University of Tampere (nervously and expecting the worst based on my previous experience), I was surprised to find that I was immediately granted extra time in exams without any problems. However, not long after that, I found out that the general exam time is around four hours. That has been enough for me in most cases. Generally, the Finnish education system seems a lot freer and a lot less stressful than the British education system. Perhaps the attitudes of lecturers (and sometimes also students) at British universities are affected by the increase in university tuition fees. Almost anyone can get a degree as long as mummy and daddy can pay up or you take out a loan of around £30,000.
I don’t often talk about my dyslexia partly because of feeling that I’m better at writing than speaking (you can’t backspace speech!) and often feeling socially anxious, but mostly because of my previous negative experiences as well as common myths about dyslexia. Especially when meeting someone for the first time or getting to know someone, talking about having dyslexia (or other aspects of my life such as my sexuality) doesn’t always feel worth the risk of opening up Pandora’s box of prejudices and not having enough time to explain. Some people also seem to perceive talking about such issues as a sob stories or excuses. They think that those who speak about such issues are self-obsessed and victimise themselves. However, if we act like the world is a utopia and never talk about our own struggles or those of others (however small they might seem in a global context), how is anything ever going to change or progress? According to a white paper released by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) during this Learning Disabilities and Dyslexia Awareness month, “seventy percent of parents, educators, and school administrators incorrectly linked learning disabilities with mental retardation and the majority of the public believe the home environment and laziness are among the causes of learning disabilities”.
Most writing tends to be done on computers nowadays, so I think my struggles aren’t too noticeable, mostly thanks to spellchecker (my saviour!). I love writing and I’ve even been complimented on my writing skills! The hardest part of writing for me is proofreading. I do notice the difference when I don’t have access to spellchecking (and grammar checking) software or I write by hand. Perhaps this is also partly generational since we don’t write by hand as much as we used to. Many schools are trying to limit the use of phones, which I can totally understand because children need to be able to focus and learn social interaction. However, phones can also be used as a learning tool. When there’s an abbreviation on a lecturer’s presentation slides, I often wonder (depending on the situation) whether would be socially acceptable to take out my phone and search for its meaning.
I’m not saying that I’m perfect and I probably also sometimes write long sentences and paragraphs that some people might find difficult to understand. Probably spending so much time in academia has inevitably influenced me in that sense. However, I at least try to minimise my use of jargon, I try to expand abbreviations, and I try not to make assumptions about other people’s knowledge. I guess I do this because of my personal experience of having sat through complex lectures without even having any basic knowledge of the issue being discussed. Sometimes it feels like some academics are speaking another language even when they’re speaking my own mother tongue.
I’ve previously been criticised for not reading enough. As a native English speaker, I also often end up being asked to proofread texts. I enjoy reading, but it takes a lot to motivate myself to do so because I find it very frustrating. It’s not so bad with fiction, but academic articles tend to drive me insane. It takes a long time for me to understand the meaning of the really long sentences and paragraphs, jargon, and complex vocabulary (that I sometimes have to look up in the dictionary multiple times before remembering the meaning). I also often lose my place and have to reread a paragraph several times before I can make proper sense of it. The worst is that sinking feeling when a lecturer sets 100 pages of weekly ‘compulsory reading’. I don’t think it’s just students with learning disabilities who struggle with this! Lecturers seem to sometimes forget that we also have other courses, part-time jobs, and hobbies, etc.
Sometimes I question why I ended up being interested in languages. I remember when someone in one of my Finnish grammar classes once said, “Imagine trying to learn this if you had dyslexia.” but the teacher moved on before I could respond. I have to read, write, and use a word or grammar case many, many times before I can remember it (in my mother tongue as well as in other languages).
I also sometimes question why I ended up in academia. I recently (tried to) read a sentence in an academic context that was 100 words long! Punctuation is there for a reason – part of which is to indicate where to take a breath when reading aloud. I tried reading 100 words aloud without taking a breath and it didn’t go well. I made it to about 50 words.
Don’t even get me started about referencing. Many lecturers ask their students to reference clearly, yet fail to do so in their own presentation slides. This has many a time sent me on a wild goose chase around the internet.
I’ve previously been unsuccessful when applying for jobs or internships that have involved writing or maths tests that I’ve failed. I’ve sometimes felt like a misfit when I worked in catering and retail, and I also often feel like a misfit in academia. I’m not from a privileged/elite/academic background, and my writing style tends to be journalistic, biased, and emotional. I think that opinions and emotions are the foundation of human experiences and therefore the societies in which we live. I struggle to ignore them or put them aside. I don’t believe that it’s possible for something to be totally unbiased, either. The sad truth is that people like us don’t usually end up in academia. We get made to feel like crap and then pushed away before we’ve barely even started. On the other hand, I think and hope that struggling with our sense of belonging is normal and something that almost everyone struggles with.
Some academics seem to question why their publications aren’t more widely read. I think that maybe it’s because they are mostly only accessible to the privileged and elite (yes, I’m obsessed with those words). Specifically, those with a university library account who have some background knowledge of the topic and a wide range of vocabulary, and who can make sense of long and complex sentences and paragraphs. I sometimes struggle to feel motivated to write my Master’s thesis because, like my Bachelor’s dissertation, it will probably just end up gathering dust on a shelf having only ever been read by myself and my supervisor. Academics also seem to wonder how to make their publications more accessible. I personally find it easier to listen to the radio or podcasts than read articles (for example, when catching up with the news through BBC World Service). I wish that more academic audiobooks would also be available.
Some people might read this and think that I’m a total idiot, but I try not to care. People are probably going to find some way to criticise us whatever we do, so we may as well just do what we enjoy and what’s important for us. I guess writing about dyslexia is worth the risk of people thinking that I’m an idiot if it helps us to start conversations or get to know other people who have similar struggles.