Support for dyslexia and dyspraxia: a student’s experience

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A student perspective on dyslexia and dyspraxia support in higher education.

Transcript of ‘Support for Dyslexia and Dyspraxia: a student’s experience’:

My name is Grazia Bevere, I am the senior dyslexia tutor and I co-ordinate the support for students with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyspraxia. I am also the first point of contact for all the students who are experiencing any difficulties with their academic studies. I provide an initial screening and if necessary I refer them to an educational psychologist following that assessment. I also liaise very closely with academic departments in relation to the support we need to provide for this group of students. And I deliver dyslexia awareness training sessions in academic departments.

Now here at Queen Mary we have around 400 students diagnosed with a specific learning difficulty, and I supervise a team of 7 part time dyslexia specialist tutors. They teach an average of 100 students each academic year and they provide individual learning support sessions. Now the sessions aim at helping students to devise appropriate strategies so that they can overcome their difficulties; and they focus on academic skills such as reading, research, academic writing, exam revision, and time management.

Anna is one of our students: she was diagnosed with dyspraxia in the middle of her PhD and she has been receiving individual learning support sessions since then. So Anna, how individual support session has helped you so far?

I would say it’s just been completely invaluable. I couldn’t be at the point where I am now, which is moving toward finishing my PhD and handing in, submission. So when I first, when I was in trouble and was finding it difficult to get through the point of upgrade I was floundering and it was realised by the academic department that something was wrong. I was almost at the point of failing and in fact without the intervention of the academic department I possibly would have just simply failed. However, someone came in and it was possible to move things on because it was suggested to me that I might have a particular problem and would I see an educational psychologist.

I then took up that idea very readily because I wanted to be able to continue. I then approached someone who was head of department then who organised for me to have an educational psychology test. I had that. It was found that I was quite severely dyspraxic and that they could locate specific problems that I had. So then I was able to go back to the disability department, come back to you, and we formulated a strategy between us as to what I needed.

And it was very useful then for the academic department at that time to be able to come and get more specific information, a) have the report from the educational psychologist, which I was happy to make available, but I think it’s, I don’t know what that’s like for other students but I was very happy for that to be completely available.

And from there I had a completely individually structured timetable, really, where I could have some time management issues resolved, sort of management of the structure of my project, and then as the project moved on and as writing it up moved on, some of the problems were resolved and some new or different ones emerged. Which – I found in the department it was really helpful that people were able to be – actually, what I found so accommodating really, from my own experience – whatever the difficulty was I could articulate it, I could say what I thought was happening, what I thought I found difficult, and then someone would come back to me and say well, yes, perhaps we could do this.

And that was when I had a dyspraxia tutor involved who worked with me, and some of the really interesting work that I found I did was the neurolinguistic programming. I found that incredibly helpful in differentiating some of the real difficulties between psychological – the kind of psychological difficulties one always comes up against when you write – and the way I’d always sort of perceived those as oh, perhaps those are in the way – and realising that there were other ways through it, very practical, very pragmatic ways.

And also that I was able to have much more academic supervision alongside that was incredibly helpful. So I think it’s very unusual for a PhD student to be awarded weekly supervision, but because it was what I needed and because the department liaised with the disability department and vice versa, that was put in place and was incredibly helpful.

So it was the liaison between the two departments that was so important?

It was really important. It was a very nice feeling to be a student so well – sort of I don’t know how to put it quite – held by the structures of the university as a team. They were all different teams but working collectively to bring about this piece of work which was important to the department, that my research was brought out, and that I didn’t fail, but equally personally important to me to achieve it.

Anna, what advice would you give to students who think they might be dyslexic or dyspraxic?

Well, I think I said that my own experience was to go to the academic department and ask for help, but then I was very acquainted and integrated into the department by then, I had been around a long time because I was at PhD level. But I suppose thinking about it more broadly, there are ways you might go about it.

One way if you are happy in your department and comfortable in your department, and have a reasonable relationship with your advisor, say at undergraduate level, you could approach them and say you’re having difficulties and you think there might be something more wrong and you’ve heard about dyslexia or dyspraxia, and see what response you get from there, and whether they’re willing to refer you through to disability.

But I think the other way you can do it is to just simply go yourself to the department because presumably people for different reasons will perhaps not want to go immediately to their academic department because they’re hoping to keep the side up and do alright. So I think in that instance it would be fine to just approach the department, they’re a very approachable bunch of people and very professional.

And I think it’s really important to have a professional body of people who understand these neurological glitches and know about them. By comparison to the environment that is specifically academic, totally geared to your subject or discipline – and that’s fine, for your subject or discipline, but if you have dyspraxia or dyslexia or a mixture, then I would say get the department on board.

So on the subject, what advice would you give to academics in relation to the support for this particular group of students?

Well I think there’s a big debate out there in the world about what dyslexia and dyspraxia and such neurological matters are. So I suppose first of all I would say it would be good if that academic debate were kept separate from the individual student that approaches with these particular problems or difficulties.

So that actually I’d say to anyone supervising or advising a student that comes to them with such difficulties to first of all be sympathetic to the student’s anxieties and the way they’re identifying their problems, and to accept those as they are with a certain amount of neutrality in a way, and then get advice from the professional department. Because it’s the professional department that have the skills, the specific skills, to assist both the student and the academic department in supporting that student. So I think it’s really important to have that mutual support, I think as I said in my own case, that mutual support was the thing that made it really a productive exercise.

Thank you very much.

Thank you very much. Thank you a lot.

Want to learn more about support for disabled students in higher education? Check out Inclusive Curricula, Teaching and Learning at QMUL: a report and  Changes to Disabled Students’ Allowance: a reason to pursue inclusivity.