To mark Dyslexia Awareness Week Scotland, our disability support coordinator Mark Ross has gathered insights from staff who have experience of dyslexia and provides information about support services which are available.
Dyslexia has consistently been among the most disclosed disabilities within our university partnership and across further and higher education over the last few years. The university has clear processes in place to ensure the support requirements of individual students are identified, captured and communicated with relevant staff on a need-to-know basis.
Our disability and personal learning support plan processes enable us to make reasonable adjustments for students with dyslexia in line with our responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010. We also do as much as possible to ensure our provision is accessible to current and prospective students in advance and we recognise that not every student will require, or wish to set up, a personal learning support plan.
Gerald McLaughlin – Student Services Manager, Perth College UHI
The most often seen condition at Perth College UHI’s additional support service is specific learning difficulties. These conditions constitute around 40% to 45% of the students we support each year. Specific learning difficulties is an umbrella term for conditions such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia. The etymology (origin of the word) of these conditions is: dys – difficult, then add the suffix (or ending) lexis – speech (for dyslexia) or praxis – movement (for dyspraxia) and calculia – to count (for dyscalculia). The most common specific learning difficulties condition we see is dyslexia.
As a dyslexia specialist and specific learning difficulty assessor of a number of years now, it is clear that the benefits of a dyslexia diagnosis are multifaceted and, more often than not, personal to the individual. The obvious benefit for our higher education students is to unlock funding such as Disabled Students’ Allowance.
However, there is personal benefit in terms of a diagnosis too. Anecdotally speaking, after more than a decade working in additional support, you begin to see patterns of folk with specific conditions congregating in certain courses. While I have not done any formal research (although, I do believe I have a PhD thesis in here somewhere) my contention is as follows. People with dyslexia are attracted to jobs that are more practical in nature, childcare and early education being a good example.
From around 2012 onwards, colleges such as Perth College UHI saw a steady stream of early childhood practitioners come on to degree courses such as the BA (Hons) childhood practice. A number of these, usually mature, students began to struggle with the advanced literacy elements of their courses. The college support systems would kick in and dyslexia screening and eventual diagnosis would be scheduled. Having completed a number of diagnoses for these (predominantly female) students, the overwhelming feedback I would receive from is that of catharsis! The student would invariably feel a sense of relief. Some comments I would receive, would be along the lines of ‘I knew I wasn’t thick’ – ‘I always knew there was something not right’. There were sometimes even tears of relief.
Many of these students would continue their educational journey to success. They would often report a sense of achievement from their hard work and endeavour. You could see their negative experiences of education dissipate; it is almost tangible.
They would now be supported appropriately by the university support systems and have equal access to the curriculum, sometimes for the first time in their life.
My part in the student journey to success is relatively incidental. You simply give the student a key. It needs to be said though, as a specific learning difficulty assessor, being able to give someone the key that allows them to unlock their full potential is by far the biggest privilege you can have!
Dr Gareth Davies – Lecturer and Programme Leader, Lews Castle College UHI
I started secondary school in Wales in 1979 and I was told I was thick. In the late 70s there wasn’t as much known about dyslexia as there is today and there was far less understanding of the challenges that those with dyslexia faced daily. A teacher told me I was too thick to do “O” level English and the school refused to put me in the “O” level group.
Thus, I was denied the opportunity to study for one of the most basic and important gateway qualifications. Fortunately for me, my mother was an English teacher and she did not give up on me. She told the school that she would keep me home on a Thursday morning and teach me herself. She did and I passed, but that was not the end of the story. I struggled to gain a BTEC diploma in business studies and then got relatively mundane jobs.
One job was working in a shop on the high-street in Bangor. I spent Saturdays watching students from the university casually milling around and popping into the pubs and I thought that looked like a fun thing to do, so I signed up for “A” level English evening classes and I squeaked through with a grade D which was enough to get me into Bangor University to study psychology. I honestly thought that if I lasted until Christmas before they found out I was thick and booted me out, I would be doing well. But that did not matter because I was in university having a great time and I was not working in the shop. Much to my surprise, I made it through to the second year (a degree is three years in Wales and England).
As part of the degree, participation as a research subject was strongly encouraged so I signed up to be a control participant for Prof Tim Miles, a name that many in the dyslexia community will recognise. He told me I had come on the wrong day and that the subjects with dyslexia should come the following day. Of course, I protested that I did not have dyslexia, but Prof Miles just smiled and said that he was pretty sure that I was dyslexic. Who was I to argue? He referred me to an educational psychologist who confirmed his hunch. Thanks Tim!
Discovering that I had dyslexia was a moment that gave me the confidence to carry on with my studies. I did and I was successful. I had the feeling that a weight had been lifted from my shoulders and I was not, after all, “thick”. It was a great boost to my self-confidence.
I did a Master’s degree straight after my Bachelor’s degree and a few years later I completed a teaching qualification. A couple of years after that I did my PhD. The school was wrong, but to be fair, this was 35 years ago and dyslexia is now far better understood. Help and support is available in ways that didn’t exist when I was a student. There was some; I was given a computer and extra exam time and that was it. No one ever asked me how I was getting on. The university partnership has a host of resources that those with dyslexia can access so seek the help that is out there – it is far better than the help that was on offer 35 years ago.
The lesson I have taken away from all this is never to let anyone hold you back. Having dyslexia does not mean that you cannot succeed – you can. I did.
The university’s accessibility project
To help staff ensure their learning content is accessible and to comply with accessibility regulations, the university is running a project with staff training at the heart of it. Not only will this ensure that students with disabilities are able to access learning content, creating accessible learning resources also enhances the experience for all students.
The accessibility project team has:
- Established a university-wide accessibility champions forum which will help staff locally
- Created a self-directed accessibility support module for staff, comprising a suite of useful resources
- Arranged online support which will include webinars, workshops, drop-ins and question and answer sessions
- Used software tools to help make learning content accessible and available to students in alternative formats
- Created an accessibility communications site which will give staff the information they need to start their accessibility enhancement journey
Students with dyslexia may find some of the available alternative formats such as audio, tagged PDF and BeeLine Reader useful. The BeeLine Reader is particularly helpful for people with dyslexia as it displays lines of text in different colours. For more information, see the BeeLine Reader section on Blackboard Ally’s alternative formats webpage.
University of the Highlands and Islands students can download the offline versions of Office 365 applications (e.g. Word, PowerPoint, etc) for use during their studies. Microsoft Office has several in-built accessibility tools which can be useful for students and staff alike.
- Students who would like further details of available support can contact student services for advice.
- Students can also contact their personal academic tutor for further information on the university’s accessibility project.