Daniel Austin discusses how, with the support of his university, he was able to achieve a First in his master’s in chemistry, despite having severe dyslexia. He offers further ways that Higher Education Institutions can support dyslexic students and ensure accessibility for all.
During my first few years at school, my parents and teachers noticed that I struggled with tasks like using scissors or colouring within the lines. I couldn’t engage with written content like other students, and there was a concern I’d never read or write, let alone go on to complete a masters.
I was statemented with dyspraxia and severe dyslexia at age seven. Fortunately, I also had the opportunity to go to a specialist dyslexia school. There, we were encouraged to find different interests and talents and I discovered a love of chemistry, and through this a love of learning. With alternative teaching techniques I learned to read and write and gained the skills necessary to be able to return to mainstream education to begin secondary school.
Education was always a struggle and I had to work extra hard for things that other students took for granted. However, I think my success also says a lot about the ways attitudes to educational special needs are changing and the ways schools and universities are adapting to make education, and particularly higher education, accessible to students who think and learn in different ways.
When I first applied for student finance I also applied for the disabled students allowance. Part of this was being assessed for the individual needs of the student against the requirements of their specific degree. A student who is physically disabled for example will have very different needs to a student who is blind or a student who is dyslexic, so it is crucial that their support reflects this.
For other students, lengthy textbooks and photocopied extracts may be excellent learning tools, but for me these may be very difficult to work with. However, my university recognised that if content can be adapted to suit me, I can still thrive.
I was given some software including Microsoft Office, which has been vital to my work, text to speech and speech to text software and global auto-correct. Speech to text software has been helpful for interpreting lectures where I struggle to write notes fast enough to keep up with the lecturer speaking. Likewise, text to speech software is helpful because, like many people with dyslexia, I find it difficult to read and absorb large chunks of text. Reading takes so much or my mental energy that I find it difficult to actually understand the text as well as read it. Give me a recording of someone talking about complex chemical equations, however, and I’ll be fine.
As part of my allowance I was also provided with weekly one to ones with a mentor. My mentor helped by giving me study techniques and helping me to prioritise my workload. It was also extremely helpful to know that someone understood my disability and could make sure I was getting what I needed with regards to my dyslexia. For example, helping me to find ways to ask for extra help from my lecturers, and supporting me in finding a scribe that I worked well with in exams.
For exams I was offered either the use of a laptop or a scribe, because although I can now write well on a computer, my handwriting is slow and when I write quickly it can become illegible. I chose a scribe because I had experience working with a scribe for my A-Levels, and because the nature of my degree requires a lot of drawing that can’t be done on a laptop.
One thing I will point out is the importance of having a scribe that you work well with. If it is difficult to communicate with each other for whatever reason, then your exam grades will suffer. I found myself occasionally trying to change scribes before my next exam. Exam periods are stressful times for all students and the added anxiety that my grades could suffer because my current scribe and I didn’t communicate well, only added to my already high levels of exam stress. It is important for universities to ensure that students are able to meet and practice with scribes before an exam.
There is a lot that lecturers can do to help students with dyslexia too. Having clear and concise lecture notes was vital to me getting the most out of my lectures. Clear, well laid out PowerPoint presentations on display throughout the lecture were the most effective for me.
When it came to using published content for learning, accessibility was in many ways even more important because students have to use what they’re given or risk missing out. Access to clear and well-structured textbooks was important. I found the Oxford Chemistry Primers series very helpful for providing clear diagrams and well explained text with relevant examples. This is something that should be considered when selecting books for reading lists.
Being able to access text books online rather than just in print was very beneficial because I found them much easier to navigate. I could isolate the relevant pages and print them, making the content a lot more manageable. Having a print-out was great as I could make notes and highlight the text, making reading a lot more interactive and memorable.
I knew I learned better in small groups because this is something I was lucky enough to have at my specialist dyslexia school. Students with dyslexia tend to learn in more interactive ways, so holding office hours every week where students can come and discuss their work with professors and peers is crucial, and something I really took advantage of. I know this is common at universities, but it isn’t always the case, and for students with dyslexia who tend to learn in more active ways; it is important to be able to discuss what you have learnt.
Overall, I still feel that we can constantly learn more about how to help students, and while many departments are excellent, universities need to make sure there is consistent support for students, no matter what course they are studying and where. However, I think that it is gratifying to see universities working hard to support students with dyslexia. I also know that new technology has done so much for making content more accessible, and this is something that should continue to be utilised.
About the Author
Daniel recently graduated from The University of Reading, where he received a First Class MChem degree, a four-year degree in chemistry that combines a BSc with a Masters. He is hoping to apply for a PhD soon.