Dyslexia and Higher Education by Jillian Gordon
As it is dyslexia awareness week, I thought it would be a sensible time to share with you all my story of dyslexia. Dyslexia was first discussed with me when I was in primary 3, as a possible explanation why I struggled with some of my schoolwork. This made my parents very nervous and they tried everything in an attempt to help me ‘overcome’ this (nobody really understood what this meant back then), leading to many a temper tantrum on my part. Who wants to be doing additional spelling tests at that age?
This theme of possibly having dyslexia continued right through my primary and high school education. In my Standard Grade years, I was given a five-minute computer test to determine if I ‘possibly’ had dyslexia. This indicated that yes after over 5 years of it being mentioned it was probable that I had dyslexia. Though, at no point was I formally diagnosed, and nothing really changed, though for exams I was put in a room on my own and given extra time, making me feel different and excluded.
For me the thought of having Dyslexia was terrifying, at the time I felt that there was a stigma around Dyslexia and other learning difficulties. I felt that if I accept this information about myself, I would be limited in what I could do. At this point I still had no idea what that was but being a stubborn person, I was certain I was not going to limit my possibilities by accepting this ‘probable’ diagnosis.
So, I was very much in denial. As I progressed through high school education I became increasingly frustrated with my education. I was trying to learn the same way as my peers, and I was not willing to accept that everyone has their own way of learning or accept any help in finding the way that worked well for me. This led to me working very hard and achieving very little! Ultimately this frustration, disappointment and exhaustion eventually led to me disliking school, intensely (trying very hard to not use the word hate). By some teachers I felt, I was labelled as lazy and not willing to-do the work, by others I felt they saw me as just not that smart.
In my final year of school, I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. After a conversation with a caring teacher, she told me about SRUC (well actually SAC, as it was at the time. Yup that was a long time ago now). My teacher was aware that I had a passion for animals, and even though I struggled I enjoyed biology, so she recommended a Bioscience HNC at SRUC. I come from an educated family, who have all been involved in university level education so I felt that was what I should do as well as a silly embarrassment over not being able to-do a degree.
When it came to exams I now (at the last minute) had something to focus on. A grade I needed to achieve. But, the years of frustration and ignoring any differences that I had, took their toll. I left high school with poor grades, I remember so clearly sitting on my bed in tears after opening my SQA letter, I felt I had no opportunity’s and I had missed my chance. It was this point that my older sister took charge and called SAC’s education office. As always, they were so helpful and told us about clearing. I was one of the lucky ones, and managed to get into the HNC Bioscience program via clearing.
Fast forward to day one of my first day of collage, I quickly realised that actually I was the only one who was on the HNC path and I was so confused when I was called into the same meetings as the BSc course in Applied Animal Science (I really should have just asked, but that was not my style back then). I sat in my first lecture hall feeling, embarrassed and like the least intelligent person in the room.
It was at that point Donald Mitchel came in, he was the program director for the animal science course at the time. He addressed the class and in his welcome, said;
“Everyone in this room has the abbility to achieve a BSc honours degree in Applied Animal Science. We are here to help you achieve that.”
This statement really changed my life. For the first time in a long time I started to look forward to my classes, I felt that this was a new start and a level playing field as I was told I had the same ability as everyone else in the room. I was very much part of the animal science course and the HNC was treated as the first year of this course, not once was I made to feel different or inadequate to be on the degree program.
So along came the first assignments we had. One of my lectures when handing back an assignment, quietly said can I have a chat at the end of class. I was terrified, I had no idea what I did wrong, and why he seemed so calm! At the end of the class he said reading your work I wanted to check you were getting all the support you needed? I quickly went onto the defensive side and said I don’t have dyslexia! He just smiled and remaining as cool as a cucumber, after I had finished my defensive rant about how It was a probability and not a formal diagnosis. He said okay well why don’t we see if we can help you non the less. At that point I was passed onto the University of Edinburgh’s student disability service, I was formally assessed, and the results showed I was dyslexic (in every possible way that you can be dyslexic). SRUC and the University of Edinburgh quickly and without a fuss arranged for support, such as a scribe and extra time for my exams. After I got used to this idea, I eventually started accepting that I am dyslexic and to my utter shock when I confessed this to my family and friends, it was received with a resounding ‘yeah we know, what difference does that make’. My lecturers were all so supportive, each of them taking the time to talk to me about it in a calm and clear way asking if I would like their help. I was shocked, the stigma I was so terrified of was non-existent (in my particular case). Nobody at SRUC ever thought of me as different, difficult or less intelligent.
The staff at SRUC, my pears and the team at Edinburgh University have worked with me and supported me over the years and still do. I have learned how to work with my specific learning difficulties and no longer feel it’s such an issue. I have a proof-reader, and a study skills tutor, with them (my family, friends, colleagues, supervisors and peers) supporting me (just as I support them) I still have every possibility and opportunity as everyone else.
Since I have been diagnosed, I have worked with SRUC and Edinburgh University in achieving;
- HNC Bioscience
- HND applied Bioscience
- BSc (Hons) Applied animal science
- MSc International animal welfare ethics and law
- MscR Human Geography
Now, I am in my first year of my PhD with SRUC and Edinburgh University looking at farmers decisions in cattle breeding. Not bad for a girl who left high school with few qualifications and was told by many people that education was just not for me.
The only reason I am here right now is because I accepted my learning difficulty. Only when I accepted this and learned to deal with it, was I able to see all the options that were available to me.
Now, I am in no way saying being dyslexic is easy, it’s the opposite. It can be frustrating and embarrassing. I am filled with anxiety whenever I need to send an email, a text, a letter, submit an essay or even worse when I am asked to read something out (For context I have spent the past hour reading over this blog again and again, and I will probably continue to do so for some time. Putting words into google as my spelling can be too poor for Microsoft word to understand.) I am still learning. I am still changing and developing how I deal with this, each day I come up with a new little adjustment.
This is just my story, so many others in education are also dyslexic or have other learning difficulties. For some reason I have always felt a sort of societal and personal pressure to not discuss my dyslexia in a professional setting. This has to change. I think we would all be impressed by the amount of people who work away dealing with a hidden disability. In the words of Donald Mitchel ‘Everyone in this room has the ability to achieve’, we are all fighting our own battles be that with a learning or physical disability, health issue or personal matter. We should all be aware that everyone is different in the way they learn and communicate, this is what makes education, research and ultimately life interesting!
As part of dyslexia awareness week, I would like us to all celebrate the beauty in our differences, in our mistakes and in our development! Be proud of who you are and what makes you, you. Be kind, be aware (particularly of hidden disability’s) and keep going, even in these crazy times we are all still have the ability to achieve.