'My strengths come from the same place as my weaknesses...'

April 9, 2004

...and that's why universities should do more to understand, accommodate and value dyslexic graduate students, argues Rebecca Loncraine

I am dyslexic. I am also a writer with a PhD in English literature. Contrary to popular perception, these things are not incompatible. People are often surprised to hear this. Most assume that all dyslexics are aspiring architects, artists or entrepreneurs, not writers having to deal with the messy business of words as the tools of their trade.

When I completed my doctorate in English literature at Oxford University in 2002, I was the only dyslexic person to have achieved this as far as I knew. I swung between feeling like a proud pioneer and an isolated freak. I had not encountered other dyslexic graduates during my research, and I had come across some very old-fashioned attitudes towards dyslexia. I had overheard senior figures in the university asserting that there are no dyslexics at Oxford.

Having completed my doctoral research, I decided to find out more about dyslexia in the graduate community, and I discovered that there are many dyslexic students undertaking graduate work in universities across the UK, at both masters and doctoral levels. I have met dyslexic graduates who are doing research across a range of subjects, including English literature, theology, history of art, business studies, real estate management and anthropology. I have also met a number of dyslexic undergraduates who are going on to do masters in sociology, music therapy, business studies and English literature. Sarah Dustagheer, an undergraduate at St Anne's College, Oxford, who was statemented as dyslexic in the second year of her BA, and who, with the help of one-to-one dyslexia support, has transformed her study methods, says: "I now feel able to cope with the demands of an MA - I am more confident about my abilities."

Talking to other dyslexic graduates, it is clear that there are serious underlying problems that many of us have encountered. Universities have not yet fully recognised that dyslexic students are undertaking graduate work or that their needs differ from those of dyslexic undergraduates. For example, undergraduates are usually offered extra time for exams, but graduate work is more often examined by a long thesis. Dyslexic graduates require support with structuring their ideas, research scheduling and research methods. Jessica March, a dyslexic doctoral student in English literature at St John's College, Oxford, told me: "I was assessed for dyslexia after completing my first year of graduate study at St John's... I had problems with managing my time and organising my schedule. Finding myself under new pressure, my ordinary coping strategies for essay writing just couldn't hold up, and I found it impossible to structure long pieces of work."

The problem that many dyslexic graduates are encountering is a knowledge gap between university disability services, local education authorities and the law on the one hand, and tutors, supervisors and colleagues on the other. Dyslexic graduates can now access funding for information technology and other relevant equipment through the Disabled Student's Allowance, and the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act of 2001 (Senda) has ensured that the law is firmly behind students. However, graduates often have to work with supervisors and lecturers, librarians, college administrators, funding bodies and graduate colleagues who have no understanding of dyslexia. Senda states that academic staff should be anticipatory rather than reactive in their efforts to make higher education accessible to dyslexics. In reality, many tutors are simply unable to support dyslexic graduates because they do not know how to. This means that tutors often recognise specific needs only once problems have already emerged.

During my doctoral work, my supervisors were sympathetic, but they had very little idea how to work with me to help me through my research notes in ways that suited me. I found myself with mounting research and unwieldy and confused chapters. It would have helped me enormously if they had encouraged me to bring mind maps to our meetings, instead of drafts of chapters. The fact that I managed to complete my thesis in just less than four years and pass with a few minor corrections (seven typos) is a real personal triumph.

In the excellent chapter on dyslexia in higher education in David McLoughlin, Carol Leather and Patricia Stringer's 2002 book, The Adult Dyslexic: Interventions and Outcomes , they state that one of the keys to success is "being able to talk to other dyslexic students, to share experiences and exchange strategies". In an attempt to counter the isolation of dyslexic graduates in Oxford, I encouraged March to set up a Dyslexia Forum. March explains: "Contact with supervisors is generally infrequent. I was keen to meet other dyslexic students and learn from their experiences. The Dyslexia Forum is proving a particularly important space for graduate students who now have the opportunity to share their experiences, problems and strategies." The forum also functions as a point of contact between dyslexic students and the wider university. For example, we invite tutors, examiners and disability officers to the forum for question-and-answer sessions.

McLoughlin, Leather and Stringer explain that "it is essential for dyslexic people to understand the nature of their skills and abilities and their areas of weaknesses". One of the most important aims of the forum is to provide a space for dyslexic graduates to discuss their strengths as well as their weaknesses.

Because of its status as a disability under Senda, dyslexia tends to be viewed within higher education simply as a "problem" to be overcome. One of the most frustrating things about being dyslexic in the graduate community is that most people do not understand that my academic strengths are drawn from the same place, as it were, as my weaknesses. The strengths of my doctoral thesis were born out of my lateral thinking abilities and visual perceptiveness, which are typical strengths in the pattern of cognitive strengths and weaknesses that characterises dyslexia. My thesis looked at the relationship between image and text in early 20th-century New York newspapers. My visual and three-dimensional way of thinking enabled me to produce original insights into the symbiotic relationship between 20th-century urban development and the growth of newspapers.

McLoughlin, Leather and Stringer also suggest that for dyslexic students to succeed in higher education, they need to develop metacognition. More than most, dyslexic graduates need to think, not only about what they are researching but how to research. Supervisors of dyslexic graduates need to know more about dyslexia so that they can help them to work on their research skills, by using mind-mapping techniques, colour-coding ideas and chapters, and using reading strategies and a Dictaphone, for example.

Conventional academic research can look to the dyslexic eye like old black-and-white movies. When I work in the British Library, my workspace is always covered with multicoloured pens and bright yellow A2 vibrant mind maps. It must look brash and Technicolor to those who are happy to work in the monochrome world of white A4 paper and black pens.

Senda has forced higher education to address the widespread lack of knowledge about different learning styles, including dyslexia. A lecturer at Oxford Brookes University told me: "I would really appreciate more information on how to help dyslexic students." I now run seminars for academic staff across UK universities to educate lecturers about the distinctive pattern of strengths and weaknesses that characterises dyslexia and to inform them of ways to support their graduate students. For example, I explain how to use colour-coded mind maps as the basis for discussion of doctoral or masters thesis chapters instead of monochrome linear notes.

Dyslexic graduates are doing their best to produce original, high-quality research, but we are doing it in an academic context in which our needs are largely invisible. Dyslexic graduates and their non-dyslexic supervisors and peers need to communicate more fully about different learning styles, to work towards creating an intellectual culture in which the contributions of dyslexic graduates and academics are properly understood, accommodated and valued.

Rebecca Loncraine is a freelance writer. She also runs dyslexia awareness seminars for university staff throughout the UK.

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