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Dyslexia and Higher Education

Dyslexia and Higher Education by Jillian Gordon

Dyslexia was first discussed with me when I was in Primary 3. Dyslexia was a possible explanation why I struggled with some of my schoolwork. This made my parents very nervous, and they tried everything to help me ‘overcome’ this (nobody really understood what this meant back then). This led 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 after more than five years of it being mentioned, it was probable that I had dyslexia. However, at no point was I formally diagnosed, and nothing really changed, although 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 there was a stigma around dyslexia and other

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Jillian Gordon.
Picture, Phil Wilkinson.

learning difficulties. I felt that if I accepted this information about myself, I would be limited in what I could do. At this point I still had no idea I was being stubborn. 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. 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. I felt some teachers labelled me as lazy and not willing to do the work, while others 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 until a caring teacher told me about Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) – or SAC, as it was at the time. 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 enter for 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, and I remember so clearly sitting on my bed in tears after opening my SQA letter. I felt I had no opportunities and I had missed my chance. It was at 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. I managed to get onto the HNC Bioscience program via clearing.

Fast forward to my first day of college, and I was confused when I was called into the same meetings as the students on the BSc course in Applied Animal Science. I quickly realised that I was the only one who was on the HNC path, and I sat in my first lecture feeling embarrassed and like the least intelligent person in the room.

At this point, the programme director for the Animal Science course addressed the class and in his welcome, said: “Everyone in this room has the ability 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.

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Picture, Phil Wilkinson.

So along came the first assignments. One of my lecturers, when handing back an assignment, quietly asked if he could have a chat at the end of class. I was terrified. I had no idea what I had done wrong and why he seemed so clam. He said he wanted to check I was getting all the support I needed. I quickly went on the defensive and said, “I don’t have dyslexia.” After I had finished my defensive rant about how it was a probability and not a formal diagnosis, he said: “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 a clear way, asking if I would like their help. I was shocked, the stigma I was so terrified of was non-existent. Nobody at SRUC ever thought of me as different, difficult or less intelligent.

The staff at SRUC, my peers 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 supporting me along with my family, friends, colleagues, supervisors and peers. I have the same possibilities and opportunities as everyone else.

Since I was diagnosed, I have achieved an HNC Bioscience, HND Applied Bioscience, BSc (Hons) Applied Animal Science, MSc International Animal Welfare, Ethics and Law, MScR Human Geography.

Now, I am doing am about to start the second 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 her.

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.

I am not 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 (I have spent the past hour reading over this blog again and again, and I will probably continue to do so for some time). I put 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, and 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 that first programme director: “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.

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 disabilities) and keep going. Even in these crazy times, we all have the ability to achieve.

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