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Jonathan Beckett examines the provision colleges and universities offer to students with dyslexia and what they can do to improve it

The Equality Act (2010) stipulates that those with a disability should not be discriminated against. Within this legal duty, the right to have “reasonable adjustments” made in the case of dyslexia is established. However, does the Act prevent stigmatisation of those with dyslexia? Does the legislative landscape necessitate a “dyslexic friendly” setting? I believe, as I will attempt to show, that they do not.

The British Dyslexia Association notes that dyslexia affects approximately one in ten individuals. Therefore, in any one lesson, of approximately thirty, three people may have dyslexia. However, does the education system cater effectively for the needs of those with dyslexia? Having dyslexia in a non-dyslexic friendly environment can make an individual feel isolated, stigmatised and a victim of the system. Some individuals with dyslexia manage their dyslexic identity by continually trying to exist within a discriminating environment – rather like swimming against a strong current; the process can be exceptionally hard work, emotionally draining and strenuously challenging.               

From first-hand experience of having dyslexia and working with and researching the lived lives of those with dyslexia, a number of common themes have emerged. A number of universities offer study support, such as help structuring work, dealing with awkwardly worded sentences and offering study and revision classes in preparation of examinations. Other institutions use differentiated marking techniques and adopt strategies to ensure individuals are not penalised for spelling, punctuation and grammar errors indicative of dyslexia. 

Real benefits

Some universities and colleges, and the staff within them, are sympathetic to those with dyslexia, ensuring they receive a good level of support with assignment writing and exam revision. However, it is my experience that not all institutions have adopted such a sympathetic approach to helping students with dyslexia. Moreover, some insist that by using assistive technology and extensions for assignments, students will be sufficiently advantaged, to the same level as their fellow non-dyslexic peers. However, this is often not the case. Simply providing computers and credit for photocopying and book allowance, does not necessarily mean that the dyslexic student is well catered for and the university has no further responsibility. In several instances, I have witnessed universities feeling as though they have done their bit towards those with dyslexia when in reality their actions fall short of benefitting those with the condition.

In the light of these issues, how can colleges and universities respond in a non-discriminatory and anti-oppressive way? Being aware of dyslexia and its impact upon students, which can be felt both educationally and psychologically, is a crucial staring point. Thompson (2013), citing the experiences of “Rosemary”, notes that “Dyslexia blocks out the sun of success, optimism and friendship”. Some students may genuinely feel a sense of failure in systems which are set up for academia. 

The mental health of those with dyslexia has been investigated by looking at the stress associated with the condition (Miles, 2004; Alexander-Passe, 2013). The correlation between stress and decreased mental health is becoming more recognised and more widely documented, although more innovative research is necessary. It is important that those with dyslexia feel supported in their studies. A greater understanding of their needs and fighting for the implementation of systems which allow those with dyslexia to flourish within (rather than in spite of) the educational system, are key to helping those with dyslexia.      

Pursuing a degree is a challenging task for many students with dyslexia. Research by Grant (2010) suggests that those with dyslexia have to work ten times harder than those who do not have dyslexia. However, every year, all over the country, many students with dyslexia successfully complete their degree. Being mindful of the battles those with dyslexia experience is an important step towards ensuring inclusive practice.  

The right focus

Marking the key points and arguments of an essay is more valuable than addressing the spelling and structural issues of a paper. The University of Hull’s marking policy states that markers should: “Focus on the clarity of the argument, rather than on details of expression”. Differentiated marking (such as the use of a distinguishing sticker on the assignment, indicating that the arguments of the work be marked rather than the presentation of the points, which may be hampered by the prevalence of dyslexia) is an important aspect of appropriate provision. It is pertinent to note that “Students with dyslexia often spend considerably more time on assignment production than their non-dyslexic peers, but this effort is not always reflected in their written work” (University of Wolverhampton, Student Enabling Centre: Dyslexia Unit Dyslexia Assessment Policy). 

Ensuring students have handouts prior to the sessions is a useful way of helping those with dyslexia to organise themselves and prepare for lecturers and classes. The use of clear computer presentations and worksheets is essential here. For some students with dyslexia, words on a page may appear blurred or distorted if unusual fonts are used or if colours do not provide a positive contrast (Riddick et al., 2002).  

Another useful provision for those with dyslexia is to allow them to record lecturers, seminars and workshops.  This will allow them the opportunity to reflect on and revisit points which they may have missed first time around. One student I spoke to said she missed a significant amount of the session’s content whilst writing notes and the opportunity to record the lecture was vital to her.

It is also important to release assessment tasks, marking criteria and book recommendations as early as possible, to allow students to engage with the task at the earliest opportunity. Another student told me that the demarcation of “recommended” and “essential” texts was also very helpful, because those with dyslexia find it difficult to read significant amounts of texts and glean meaning from them in order to formulate an essay.  

One provision I came across in a West Sussex library was the use of audio books, which appeared to be a positive way of working through a text, with correct pronunciations and alternative voices making listening easier. Various text-to-speech software programmes exist which can be used to help those with dyslexia. Planning software can also be utilised to formulate ideas into a logical structure.

An Individual approach

Most important of all, though, is the personal touch. I have found it particularly useful to assist those with dyslexia by the use of individual tutorials, getting to know them as individuals, asking them (rather than assuming you know) their needs, and getting to know what works for them. This is the mark of an effective, reflective and caring practitioner and mentor (Zachary, 2000). 

Some universities and colleges are leading the way in being dyslexic friendly, with well trained staff, appropriate provision and systems designed to support (not penalise) students with dyslexia. However, I still believe that our further and higher education systems need an overhaul in terms of how young people with dyslexia are perceived and the provision these students receive. Key challenges facing practitioners include being aware of the needs of those with dyslexia, understanding the stigmatisation of dyslexia, seeking to address inequalities in the systems and becoming personally and corporately concerned for these students.   

Further information

Dr Jonathan Beckett has a Doctorate in Education (specialising in dyslexia) an MA in Inclusive Education, an MEd in Education (specialising in dyslexia) and a post graduate diploma in Social Work. He is a senior primary school teacher in West Sussex:      
http://stpetersce.eschools.co.uk/website  

References

  • Alexander-Passe, N. (ed.) (2013). Dyslexia and Mental Health : Investigations from Differing Perspectives, (New York) Nova Science Publishers.
  • Grant, D. (2010). That's the way I think : dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD explained, (London) Routledge.
  • Miles, T. (2004). Dyslexia and stress, (London) Wiley.
  • Riddick, B., Farmer, M. and Sterling, C. M. (2002). Dyslexia and inclusion : assessment and support in higher education, (London) Wiley.
  • Thomson, M. (2013). Dyslexia included : a whole school approach, (London) Routledge.
  • Zachary, L. J. (2000). The mentor's guide : facilitating effective learning relationships, (San Francisco) Jossey-Bass.

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