Studying with Specific Learning Disorders

It is estimated that around 4% of university students have dyslexia, and I am one of them! I am a third-year sociology student at the University of Portsmouth. Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that commonly affects the literacy ability of an individual; though it has been found that dyslexia also affects memory, processing, organisation and sequencing.

So what does this mean in terms of studying within higher education?
Even though I was officially diagnosed when I was 10 after showing multiple symptoms of dyslexia (the most memorable one was in year 3 when I put my hand up and said I couldn’t read the board ‘because the teacher had made the letters move’). At my primary and secondary schools,  I had extra time in tests, a reader and a Teacher’s Assistant/mentor who would be in the lessons I found hardest. However, this wasn’t substantial enough evidence for an official diagnosis. As a result, I went into the first year without any official support.

When I first went to University, the amount of reading was unbearable. I had six modules and had to read articles before each seminar in order to be able to discuss them. There were times where I didn’t show up because I hadn’t been able to read the articles on time. The length of assignments were tough too; suddenly my work needed structure and required a lot of sources,  which meant more reading.

By Christmas, things had become even more difficult. I went to the Additional Support and Disability Advice Centre, where I had to be re-diagnosed at 20, as according to the Disability Student Allowance, this diagnosis was not recent enough. The DSA is a government body that funds disabled students within higher education and advises the university what reasonable adjustments can be made. 

However, this time the diagnosis wasn’t so simple. I was re-diagnosed with dyslexia, but they also identified dyspraxia and visual stress.
Dyspraxia refers to general lack of coordination and organisational skills. Visual stress on the other hand, is a visual processing condition that causes reading difficulties from exposure to patterns in text. “Great!” I thought, “more things I’m bad at!”

Although the diagnosis focused more on what I couldn’t do than what I could do, it did allow me to get the support I needed to succeed within a higher education setting. I was given 25% more time in tests and allowed to have more time with tutors and lecturers to go over content I could not process. The most helpful was the assistive software, such as Dragon and Claroread, which allowed me to speak out my thoughts rather than write them down. I was also granted additional study sessions, to help my general writing and comprehension skills.

I was disheartened by my new diagnosis, but it also allowed me to do so much. I took part in the Change100 scheme ran by Leonard Cheshire Disability,  a scheme for disabled University students that enables them to have internships that cater to their disability. I worked in Equality and Inclusion and HR generally within a construction company.  All this helped me to realise, that I wanted workplaces to be more inclusive to individuals with disabilities.
Since then, I have been an ambassador for Change100, have mentored other individuals like me, been to high profile diversity and inclusion events and been able to volunteer for Toucan! My specific learning disabilities have been a reason for why I struggle, but not an excuse for failure.

If any of the issues raised in this article were of interest, please go to more information on dyslexia.

Alternatively, please contact

Christy McBride, BSc.

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