Prosaic solution to unspoken issues

March 22, 1996

Fiona is in the final year of an honours degree in architecture. In tutorials she discusses issues fluently. Her tutors have been impressed by the imagination in her design work. But Fiona is dyslexic, and the written aspects of her course have been a constant struggle. She has had to resit several examinations. More than once she has considered abandoning the degree, yet has managed to survive - until now. Confronting Fiona is the task of writing a 10,000 word dissertation. She is becoming progressively more anxious as she contemplates failing her degree.

Some staff maintain that some allowances should be made. Others retort that special provisions will give Fiona an unfair advantage. Some declare that if students cannot write acceptable English they have no business being at university at all. Fiona has now been asked to produce independent professional evidence of her dyslexia and the extent to which it interferes with her studies. The student welfare service advises her to obtain a private assessment from an educational psychologist. She is shocked to discover that this would cost Pounds 200. She is already deeply in debt.

Such cases are becoming more frequent. Dyslexia is the single largest disability category in higher education, with dyslexic students comprising more than a quarter of all students with a disability of some kind. This is not just a repercussion of wider access to higher education. As a result of specialist teaching greater numbers of pupils with dyslexia are attaining a level of literacy skill enabling them to gain entry to university, even if they struggle after they get there. In today's climate of greater awareness, they expect to graduate just like other students.

Dyslexia is a neurological condition, in most cases inherited, in which aspects of information processing are carried out differently. Twenty years ago there was scepticism about the existence of dyslexia, but now the scientific evidence is overwhelming. Although they have intelligence which is perfectly adequate for higher education, students with dyslexia have problems with written language. It is now increasingly appreciated that dyslexia is a difference rather than a deficiency in brain processing. Indeed, many students with dyslexia have special or exceptional talents, and are frequently encountered in certain professions (particularly architecture, engineering, art and design, computing and the performing arts) and on the relevant degree courses.

Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1994 all institutions must publish disability statements. The funding councils may impose conditions upon institutions with regard to such provision. In other words, institutions with disability provision which is below par could be financially penalised. The first statements must be submitted this September. The financial implications of disability provision will doubtless be scrutinised carefully. Some institutions may be tempted to pay only lip service to the requirements of the Act. But can institutions afford not to make appropriate provision?

The issues are not easy to resolve. Take diagnosis and assessment. An up-to-date assessment will be necessary for any student with dyslexia in order to determine the extent to which their difficulties are likely to impair learning. Unfortunately, there are no rules specifying who is qualified to diagnose a student as dyslexic, nor which methods are valid, nor what information such assessments must provide.

Dyslexia varies in severity. If a student is only mildly dyslexic, provision of, say, 25 per cent additional time in examinations is probably a poor solution. Yet a student with severe dyslexia is still likely to have major difficulties in examinations, even with extra time.

If a student's difficulties are sufficiently severe, they should be entitled to a disabled student's allowance so that they can purchase equipment to help in their studies. However, this does not absolve institutions from making support provision.

Many other students also have disappointing literacy skills. Take two equally bright students with equally poor literacy skills, one because of dyslexia and the other for some other reason: should one be given a free computer, special learning support, 25 per cent additional time in examinations, generous deadlines for assessed work, and allowances for poor writing skills and the other nothing?

A national working party on dyslexia in higher education was established last year to formulate guidelines for good practice. Regional consultative meetings are being held in Bristol on March , Manchester on April 17 and London on May 1, to which representatives from all HE institutions are warmly invited. The aim is to reduce disparities across institutions, so that students with dyslexia can expect a level of support appropriate to their needs.

Chris Singleton is a lecturer in educational and developmental psychology, University of Hull, and chair of the National Working Party on Dyslexia in Higher Education.

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