‘To the world you may be one person; but to one person you may be the world.’Dr. Seuss
The University of Sheffield Geography Society runs a campaign in November seeking to highlight issues students may face around mental health. This year they asked me to participate, so I am sharing my experiences of Dyslexia.
Dr Megan Blake, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, Interdisciplinary Researcher and Food Security Expert
Estimates suggest that one in five people are neurodiverse. This statistic does not mean that one in five people you will meet at university will be neurodiverse. There are a lot of barriers that limit the ability of neurodiverse people to access a university degree. Some of these are structural—how universities measure success and design knowledge acquisition—some are about perceptions of neurodiversity.
I am dyslexic. I have always been dyslexic, as it is something you have when you are born. Dyslexia is a specific learning disability linked to how we process and remember language, how it manifests will be different for different people. I struggle with spelling, punctuation, proofreading, accurate copying, keeping focused in my writing, retrieving words under pressure, right and left, short term memory, calendars, and how I experience time. I don’t have the usual problems with reading comprehension that many dyslexic people do, probably because I had a lot of reading support as a child. I am also a lateral and interdisciplinary thinker, creative, can identify patterns, and think in complex systems. The latter I see in my head but cannot always convert to words, so I draw diagrams.
When I was a child, I felt stupid because I had to go to the remedial reading group, and I could not spell. I was not tested as a child for dyslexia because, at that time, people thought girls did not have dyslexia. So, I was just not intelligent. Except, I was super bright at some things. Later, at university, I was not tested because the tutor thought there would be stigma, and as I was doing well, it was most likely that I had ‘good strategies’. I do, but I also spend a lot longer and become discouraged and exhausted doing things that my colleagues can do quickly and with little effort. Not being tested meant that I did not receive the legally required necessary adjustments for achieving success and a work-life balance.
I have also struggled with feelings of self-worth and imposter syndrome due to the widely held biases that exist. Assumptions that suggest people with dyslexia have no place in an academic setting. Finally, in my early 50’s I was tested, and my long-held suspicions were confirmed. Interestingly, the way dyslexia is diagnosed is through a series of tests. What specifically indicates dyslexia is being very, very good at some tasks and not very good at others. For example my problem solving skills are well above average (in the top 5%), but my rapid naming skills are well below overage (in the bottom 5%). This confirmation has enabled me to get the help I need. I also learned to recognise that because of how my brain functions, I am one of a minority of people who can think in ways that linear thinkers cannot. This difference helps me to solve problems and to be an expert in my field. Dyslexic brains existed before humans developed reading and writing. To exclude people based on this social construction is to ignore what we have to contribute.
My advice? There are some practical things you can do, and I think this works for any neurodiverse person. Start by keeping a diary of what you struggle with or what tasks make you anxious, as well as those things that come easily for you and which you enjoy. This notetaking will help you identify and prioritise those activities that give you a positive feeling. If you find that you have to do those less comfortable activities, try to find out what support there might be. It could be learning a work-around or identifying a piece of software or technology. It might be something as simple as how you arrange your workspace. I encourage you to get tested if you think you may be neurodiverse. Just knowing can be pretty empowering. Find others with the same issues with whom to talk. They can help you identify strategies and help you feel less alone. Finally, remember that your weakness is also your strength. Take pride and celebrate what you bring to the table, and don’t dwell on what causes you to struggle.
Some hints and tips that I have learned are available here: https://geofoodie.org/2019/04/09/dyslexic_academic/