As an academic, it can be difficult declaring and getting support for a specific learning disability. Here is what I’ve learned so far that helps or that I wish I had known.
I’ve recently been trying to get some support for my own dyslexia from the university — actually it’s not so recent, but we are seeing movement now. Initially, it was mostly a case of me doing more by attending tutorials and the like, which have not really been that helpful. It appears to be the hoop one has to jump through to get actual support. I’ve now spent a number of hours on online courses, at least 6 attending 1-to-1 tutorials, numerous additional hours being assessed, and a lot of time surfing the internet to try to understand what might help and what I need. I haven’t really found other academics who have navigated the process of declaring an unseen disability such as dyslexia to compare notes with, which I think would be helpful. HR does not share what it has done for others so it can be difficult to negotiate with them. This is why I have written this piece.
Of course, dyslexia manifests somewhat individually so what works/doesn’t work for me may be a different story for you or for someone else. One thing this whole process has done has helped me become more tuned in to what my issues are. I’ve become more aware of what I struggle with–things that I thought were just normal before. I’ve also found some things that are really helpful, once my needs were identified.
Dealing with formal organisational structures to get support
When I first started working at the university I checked to see what support there was for staff. This was in 2000 and so the legislation was in effect, but at that time all the support was geared toward students. I tried again to get support in 2014, but that tentative declaration resulted in a letter from HR asking me what had changed in my role and telling me I would need a capability assessment. Needless to say, I backed right off of that and said I was fine. I was not really fine. My way of dealing is to not take my entitled leave and to work particularly long hours. In a work culture where this is pretty much expected anyway, you can imagine I was barely getting by, or maybe I was doing just fine, but I felt like I was just getting by.
I tried again to get support in 2018. In this attempt, I found a more supportive head of department. I found that the university support, however, is still is mostly geared toward students. For example, I was asked to attend a number of tutorials and assessments prior to having further adjustments made for me. The tutor that I saw was one who primarily supports students in the student support centre. The tutor was friendly and sympathetic, but it felt like I was being sent to the remedial reading teacher as I had been when I was a child. It felt a bit humiliating, to be honest. I did not feel like a member of staff receiving advice as I would have if I were asking about tech support or payroll or requesting assistance with a grant application.
Making a formal declaration of a disability and asking for the statutory adjustments to be applied starts the ball rolling on a whole host of legal frameworks and obligations. Your line manager might be supportive and helpful, but he or she may not have encountered this before. I certainly do not remember the session on dealing with disabled staff who have specific learning disabilities when I was in graduate school, so chances they weren’t given that training either.
A good line-manager will want to make sure they get it right and also make sure that they don’t open up the university or themselves to a legal challenge. Rightly they will call in someone from HR to support them in their discussions with you. HR and your line manager are on the same side. Being the person on the other side of the table from this twosome can feel quite intimidating, even if you and they are trying not to make this a confrontational exercise. It certainly ran through my mind that this was my job that was on the line, particularly after the previous comments about ‘fitness for work’. I found early meetings really intimidating, particularly as I was being asked to agree to things on the spot.
In this context, it is easy to become worried that there would be suggestions that one is not ‘fit’ for the job. Even if this is not the case, the discussion is often framed very much according to a deficit model. What is wrong with you that makes you not a ‘normal’ member of staff and what is needed that we can ‘reasonably’ do to bring you up to the same level.
To address these particular issues I offer the following advice.
- Firstly, bring another person to the table with you in those first few meetings. Not an official person, like someone from the union, as this will just escalate the issues, but someone to help you remember, take notes and even out the numbers. They don’t need to advocate for you. I found this really helpful. It gave me confidence that I would remember or would have a way of remembering what was discussed and agreed. I felt more equal in the discussions.
- Secondly, have a list of what you do really well and what extra you bring to your role. Make sure these strengths are given space to be discussed and included in the minutes. Getting support for what you are really good at is as important as getting support for those things that you struggle with. Also, it is important to acknowledge strengths. This will be helpful when assigning administrative roles, for example.
- Thirdly, you can insist that identifying adjustments is a process, so that while you agree to something now it is to try it out. Everything must be revisit-able.
How to know what you need
Remember that your line manager and most likely the HR person are busy. In particular, given recent changes to the way higher education is structured the HR person is also likely to be stressed about their job as well. As a result, they are looking for easy wins. If you can make it easy for them, they can be more receptive. They will certainly ask you what you need. I had no idea in that first meeting.
Between the first and the second meeting, I started keeping a diary of what stressed me. I wish I had done this diary exercise before meeting with HR. They expect you to be an expert on what your issues are. Given it is difficult to know what ‘normal’ is, it’s hard to know what’s wrong unless you tune yourself into these stressors.
I learned that I have issues with time. Time does not march consistently for me. It is either too slow or speeds by, which means I can be too early or late for meetings. I’m more often late as I often try not to waste that half hour between things and then realise 45 minutes has gone by. I also forget meetings. I learned that timetables, where there is no consistency in the rooms and time slots, creates enormous anxiety. So much so that it keeps me up at night. If I do sleep I dream that I have missed the lecture or turned up at the wrong place, miles away from where I need to be.
Numbers, boxes and columns are difficult. I’ve learned that I really don’t enjoy filling out forms. Spreadsheets of numbers that I have to track across and copy make my head swim and I go numb. I know that I will have to look back and forth and back and forth and I still will transpose the numbers and get it wrong. Ironically, I love visualising numerical analysis, and I find stats quite sexy at times.
Spelling is not my forte and I sometimes get the wrong word in the wrong place. I live with the constant embarrassment of making very public typos on written materials, where I am supposed to be an expert. This typo then gives people a reason to reject the whole idea and dismiss my thinking as full of error. I’ve learned that I second guess myself on everything, because of these mistakes.
Disruption is a disaster. I’ve learned that noisy neighbours are really quite annoying because they distract my thinking and that interruptions, even a quick one, can cost me an hour.
I’ve learned that I can tell you almost anything about you except your name, and when under pressure this can include people who I have known for many years—including my own children.
The visual is a really important part of how I manage my thinking. I’ve learned that I try to visualise everything. If I can see it, I can understand it. I love diagrams. I have some amazing diagrams. I learned that I need edges, including edges to pages. I’ve learned that if I can see text within the wider context of the rest of the text I can make the connections that I need to make for complex arguments. I’ve learned that if I can’t see something I may forget that it existed. I wish email didn’t page. If it is off the screen it is gone.
I learned that while I am taking notes, they seem coherent, but then when I go back and read through—not so much unless I tidy them as soon as I can after. I’ve also learned I have a really good memory for some really random things.
Things have changed since I started working at the university nearly 18 years ago. These changes will not necessarily have been disability checked in advance. A particularly prime example of this for me is online marking. We use a tool that involves in-text comments and additional written comments in the sidebar. But first, you must look down a list of student numbers and identify which students are yours (copying across from a spreadsheet with the students you are responsible for listed by number). I inevitably spend 10 minutes looking for just one of my students, when I am sharing marking with other staff. Once you have found your student paper that you would like to mark you open it up to read onscreen. Depending on the screen size, you may get a paragraph, or you may get the whole paper. To see what has been written earlier in the document in order to judge the effectiveness of the signposting or the flow of the argument you must scroll. You can then add some comments that have been pre-figured—e.g., sentence run-on, but for more specific comments you must type into a text box that then closes and floats near the text. When you finish there is a document with some highlighting and these little speech bubbles. I can’t remember what is in each of the speech bubbles after about the third paper that I’ve marked. There is some functionality for recording voice notes, but you have to know in advance what you plan to say as there is no editing. There is so much in here that causes struggle—from finding the right papers to mark to tracking the whole argument to remembering what the specific issues were that need summarising for the student. I used to be able to write on the document with my pen, scan through for the consistent errors or the wider picture and then write this at the end. It took me about 15-20 minutes for 3,000 words. It now takes me about an hour to an hour and a half to do this online. In short, it takes me all day to do what I used to be able to do in a couple of hours. My point is, this is a new technology, introduced and required, which has multiplied how long it takes me to mark. It has nothing to do with my ability to understand what is being said by the student or to make insightful comments on their work. It is a technologically mediated nightmare that plays to the weaknesses of my disability, it is not a measure of my ability.
There are still those who doubt the intelligence of the dyslexic and others that suggest that because you have made it through university there can be no need for reasonable adjustments to your workplace. Still others might see discussions of these issues as self-indulgent. But on the positive side, this seems to not be the dominant response any more.
Some things that might help you do your job
ACAS has some really helpful info about recognised disabilities. It’s worth a read through their web site. Don’t expect your line manager or HR to have read this info.
I have also found the following:
Grammarly is completely worth the money for the subscription and your workplace should pay for it for you. It is much more comprehensive than the native checkers in Word and the like. It also will check emails and other online programmes.
Voice recognition software is supposed to be really helpful, but every time I’ve tried to use it I’ve not found it so. This is partly because one has to learn the software and then train it, which takes a lot of time—time not acknowledged in workload models.
While one can also request meeting papers be circulated in advance, it doesn’t really happen. I also know that if I demand it, I would also have to provide it and I would struggle with this. I guess my advice here is be tactical. Don’t demand anything that you are not willing to provide if you were on the other side of the fence.
I find diagrams and flow charts helpful, but these I have to produce myself.
Screen filters are often suggested. I have found an online free filter called colour veil that works really well. You will know you have the right colour for your screen if when you put it on you get a palpable sense of relief. A kind of blue-green colour works really well for me. Others find other colours are better. It’s individual.
Consider noise-reducing headphones. These help cut distracting noises that make it hard to concentrate.
I have now got a fantastic and very large computer screen in my office. Everyone is envious. It is 43 inches and has 4k resolution. I can place three full pages of text side by side and scroll through. I can also have multiple items open at the same time. It is better than two monitors side by side. With it, I can see both text context and edges and at a size that is plenty large for my now verifocaled eyes.
I am in the process of having whiteboard paint to paint the walls in my office so I can write lists and diagrams that I can actually see. This helps me remember and prioritise what I need to do. Lists help keep the focus on what needs to be done when and in what priority. Diagrams visualise. If they must be erased, I can take a photo. Having the whole wall as a whiteboard reduces the need for erasure. This was one of my more creative responses to the “what do you need?” question. It certainly did not appear on my workplace assessment, but I convinced them that this was a less expensive response compared to some of the tech solutions that were being suggested.
Digital calendars are key. I set the alarm. I also actively request people put things into my google calendar if they want to meet with me. If you do this, do also block out chunks of time for you to do the work you need to do in blocks that are big enough or people will make your schedule really bitty, which is a nightmare scenario.
I have support with marking loads when there are crunch periods with lots of marking. Dyslexic students get extra time in exams. We cannot give extra time to staff because of institutional deadlines, so the solution is to reduce the load to a reasonable amount. This process brings with it extra activity as the marker must be given guidance and their initial marking must be checked and then moderated, but if you calculate that into the way the support is provided, it will make all the difference. It isn’t about dumping the marking onto someone else, it is about making the load manageable and keeping the standards appropriate.
I tell people I am dyslexic. I have felt so alone in this process. In the past, I have told students I am dyslexic and they have been more understanding of the spelling errors. There are also a lot of dyslexic students. Demonstration of some degree of success can go a long way toward helping people feel more empowered in their own lives.
Finally, the long-term stress, anxiety and sometimes embarrassment (e.g., very public spelling/grammatical errors, being late or forgetting meetings) take its toll mentally. A lot of people who are dyslexic or who have other mental ‘disorders’ also suffer from depression associated with the constant effort of trying to fit in, which can make it difficult to motivate at work and at home. Bear this in mind if you have not already considered it. Your GP should be able to help you if it is an issue for you.