A Dyslexic Student's Guide to University
Written by Anneliese Evans from Exceptional Individuals.
Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is said to affect approximately 10% of the population, but it shouldn't stop anyone from going to university.
Like other specific learning disabilities – such as dyspraxia, dyscalculia and ADHD, dyslexia is the result of a difference in brain wiring. It does not affect intelligence but can result in an uneven pattern of strengths and weaknesses, in particular, when it comes to learning.
Many of us also have a tendency to think in pictures rather than words. This can make the step-by-step, linear thinking style traditionally required for reading, writing and often mathematics, quite challenging.
Dyslexia specifically affects the way the brain processes the sounds in spoken language, it is often accompanied by a weakness in short-term, auditory memory – this can make retaining certain information particularly difficult.
Going to university
Although no two students with dyslexia are the same, it is perhaps understandable that, after years of battling through school, many will feel worried or apprehensive about starting university. However, this does not have to be the case.
There is help available and with the right amount of support, understanding and hard work, a student with dyslexia (and related specific learning disabilities), cannot only survive at university, but also thrive.
By talking to universities throughout the application process and getting in touch with their disability services, students can find out what support is available that will suit them.
- Make sure you have an up-to-date educational psychologists’ report
Dyslexia is officially recognised as a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act and so students with dyslexia, or a related disability, are usually entitled to access support from the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA).
However, in order to access this support, each student must have a post-16 report from an appropriately qualified educational psychologist or specialist tutor.
A large proportion of dyslexics are actually only identified at university after slipping through the school system. These students can also apply for a DSA after receiving confirmation and a report from their university disability services.
- Apply for a Disabled Students’ Allowance as soon as possible
If you already have a diagnosis with dyslexia and an up-to-date report, then you can apply for a DSA through your student funding body (for example, Student Finance for England, Student Awards Agency for Scotland). We recommend that you apply as soon as you have your university place confirmed as it can take up to 10 weeks for it to be sorted and equipment ordered and set up.
The DSA process involves having a needs assessment based on your report and an interview at an access centre discussing how you feel dyslexia affects you. Typical reasonable adjustments include specialist software (such as speech to text or mind mapping), extra time in exams and a photocopying allowance, as well as one-to-one tuition. However, this really does depend on the individual and to what extent dyslexia affects you. Visit the DSA website to find out more.
- Tell your tutors you're dyslexic
It’s a personal choice, but in our experience, telling your tutor you are dyslexic can be really beneficial. It can be useful for the tutor to understand the way you learn so, for example, they know to judge your work on its content, rather than your spelling abilities.
It is your tutors, as well as the university disability services, who can assist you in overcoming your dyslexic challenges.
- Not everyone will understand your thinking and learning style, but that's okay
For any dyslexic that has ever been given extra time in exams or been allowed to use a laptop or spell checker, there is always one person who argues that this isn’t fair and that it shouldn’t be allowed. This can cause stress for dyslexic students who really do need these accommodations.
Dyslexic students require reasonable adjustments to keep them on an equal footing to their non-dyslexic counterparts. It’s important to learn to be your own self advocate and ignore any negativity you encounter.
People learn differently and that’s okay.
- Anything is possible!
In many ways dyslexia is merely a learning difference rather than a disability. It doesn’t take much looking to identify a long list of hugely famous and successful dyslexics who have succeeded in all walks of life, including academia.
Generally, dyslexics have been conditioned to work ten times harder than their non-dyslexic classmates from an early age. As a result, perseverance and determination become second nature.
Combine this with dyslexic creativity and excellent problem-solving abilities, as well as university support to counteract the challenges presented by dyslexia and actually, you may have a dyslexic recipe for success, more powerful that you, or perhaps anyone else, ever thought possible.
Results Day can and does strike fear into every expectant A Level student. However, for those with dyslexia or related difficulties, the stress of waiting for the day to arrive can become overwhelming.
Of course, no two people with dyslexia are the same, but there does tend to be a common pattern of strengths and weaknesses across the board – dyslexia typically affects reading, spelling and writing skills. This is generally due to underlying weaknesses in phonological processing, verbal processing speed and verbal memory.
Considering that it is these specific skills which are heavily relied upon for academic study (especially in exams), then perhaps it is little wonder that dyslexics, can find results day more stressful than most. However, this needn’t be the case. Here is a dyslexic students’ guide for surviving Results Day.
Before Results Day
- When choosing a course, play to your strengths
Nobody should be telling you that you can’t do your desired course just because you are dyslexic (after all, proving people wrong tends to a dyslexic speciality), but choosing a suitable course is just as important. For example, think about how the course will be assessed. A modular course that requires coursework or a portfolio may be more dyslexia friendly that one that requires lots of exams.
- Have a full and up-to-date assessment and accept reasonable adjustments
A Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) is a Student Finance grant that students specific learning difficulties can access. It is used to pay for assistive technology and specialist support. To qualify for a DSA, you will need to apply with evidence of your dyslexia before you start your course.
Evidence should be in the form of an up-to-date (post-16) report by an educational psychologist or specialist dyslexia teacher. If your evidence of dyslexia is accepted, then you will be asked to have a needs assessment. This is where you will be asked how dyslexia affects you personally and what reasonable adjustments are most likely suitable for you.
- Consider the social and practical sides of university life
Everyone with dyslexia is different, but many (by no means all) people with dyslexia also have co-occurring difficulties. These can range from dyspraxia to ADHD, to autism.
For example, dyspraxia and dyslexia are thought to be a pair that occur particularly often together (about 50% of the time). Dyspraxia brings its own, separate obstacles, not just involving co-ordination and planning weaknesses, but also social difficulties and particularly the organisational challenges that can also overlap with dyslexia. It is important to feel that your university can support you in every way, not just academically. This is one more reason why researching your choices is important. It has to ‘feel’ right.
Results Day and beyond
For those who meet, or even exceed their expected results then sincere congratulations to you. However, if you do find yourself falling short then the first thing to do is not panic. Following that, consider the following points:
- Clearing might be an option (but it's not the only one). If you find a vacancy through clearing that appeals to you then phone the university and get them to put you through to the disability support team. Again, see if you can arrange a Clearing open day before making any final decisions.
You may be lucky and find a course that suits you perfectly, but if you don’t, then don’t fret. Clearing is only one option.
- Alternatively, you could consider retaking during a gap year.
- Also, think about foundation courses, or possibly even an Open University course.
Ask your sixth form tutors for some guidance in talking through your options. Find more information about Results Day.
Don’t compare yourself to others
Don’t underestimate how tough it can be for dyslexic students in education – constantly swimming against a tide is one way to describe it, especially when coupled with a constant tendency to compare yourself to your non-dyslexic counterparts.
However, it is important not to be too harsh on yourself. Creativity, perseverance, visual thinking and problem-solving abilities are just some of the skills that exams don’t test for. However, these tend to be the qualities that many dyslexics have in abundance.
Ironically, many dyslexics excel once they leave school and are able to use their different ways of thinking to good use in real-world situations.
However, having said that, dyslexics can and do succeed at university (at all levels) and there is no reason why you can’t too – even if that means taking the slightly longer, yet more scenic route.
Matt Boyd, the founder of Exceptional Individuals, is a brilliant example of not just how dyslexics can use their creative thinking in the working world, but also, given the right support, how they can be high achievers at university level.
Matt, who is also dyslexic, did not want to accept any help during sixth form. This lead to grades which barely got him into university. However, having learned a valuable lesson by the time he started at the University of Kent, he disclosed his dyslexia, allowed himself student support and as a result earned a first-class degree in Business Studies.
After university, he went on to found Exceptional Individuals – the UK’s first employment partnership for dyslexic people, whose mission is to guide dyslexics in the workplace, as well as to educate companies on the benefits of hiring dyslexic employees.
You can read more about Matt Boyd and Exceptional Individuals by visiting the website.
More information and references
- Guide to university for disabled students
- The British Dyslexia Association
- Questions and answers about the DSA
Sources: The British Dyslexia Foundation Website and Dyslexia, A Practitioners Handbook by Gavin Reid.