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Don't write off the grown-ups

They faced ignorance and taunts as children, but now many older people with dyslexia are finally getting the help they need. Mary Hampshire reports

HILDA Gunton used to rely on her husband to write cheques and fill in forms for her.

Having left school at 15 with no qualifications, Mrs Gunton, 56, was terrified of looking foolish because of spelling and reading difficulties.

But after attending Bristol Dyslexia Centre she now has an English language GCSE and an English literature A-level.

"I believed I was thick and lazy. No one had heard of dyslexia when I was at school," says Mrs Gunton, during a coffee break at the hairdressing salon which she jointly runs.

Like many other dyslexic adults, her difficulties were not recognised or addressed until many years after leaving school.

Mrs Gunton, whose three children are also dyslexic, is making up for lost time - but others aren't so fortunate.

Pat Jones, founder of the Bristol centre, says: "Thousands are suffering because of a lack of understanding and opportunity both in colleges and the workplace."

A former primary and secondary teacher, whose husband and two sons are dyslexic, she says: "It affects adults enormously.Simple tasks such as filling in forms are very difficult."

"Psychologically, they are frightened of returning to education because they fear failure all over again. Although provision has improved dramatically in recent years, it's still not enough.

"Dyslexic adults often fail to reach their full potential which is a loss personally and to society as a whole."

Donald Schloss, chief executive of the Adults Dyslexia Association, says there are huge frustrations. "Some feel such a failure they get very stressed, depressed and even suicidal.

"They can't face returning to the classroom for more of the same. They'll remember working until 2am finishing homework which took other people half an hour."

It was Mrs Gunton's daughter Lisa, 33, who inspired Mrs Gunton to return to the classroom. Lisa is a design and technology teacher who completed a degree after attending the Bristol centre part-time.

"Lisa is a different person. She's a lot more confident," says Mrs Gunton who has attended a weekly session since 1993.

For 13 years the Bristol Dyslexia Centre has used games, activities, worksheets and videos to improve memory strategies, spelling, writing, grammar and organisational skills such as essay planning.

It has just launched an on-line package called Nessy for dyslexic children and adults, educationists and parents to make its teaching method more widely available.

"One teenager was illiterate," says Mrs Jones. "He couldn't read simple words such as 'and' and 'the'. He came here for 10 hours a week and after three years, he could read a newspaper and fill in forms.

"It was a painful process for him. But he's at college now training to be a mechanic.

"I see many business people. Often their companies pay for lessons. They are scared to admit they are dyslexic but the crunch comes when, for example, they are asked to do a presentation. They panic."

Andrew Dibble, 33, an engineer from Weston Super Mare, says: "I wouldn't be in the position I'm in now if I hadn't got extra tuition once a week for three years.

"I started very simply. I discovered how to hold a picture in my mind so I can recognise a pattern of letters or words. For example, when I see 'business' I know how to put a sound to it."

People come to the centre for a wide range of reasons: one pensioner came because he wanted to be able to read stories to his grandchildren.

And it's not just in Bristol that the problem of adult dyslexia is finally being tackled.

The British Dyslexia Association has helped set up strategies and projects with employers including Boots, Waterstones, Ford and the Employment Service, training organisations and colleges.

One of its most successful initiatives has been at Pentonville Prison, London, which in 1998 began to improve the literacy skills of up to 80 dyslexic inmates.

The scheme, run in conjunction with the prison's education department, has since been replicated at 10 other prisons.

Research has revealed a high incidence of undiagnosed dyslexia among offenders.

Inmates were taught via a computer package that reinforced spelling, reading and writing. They also learnt touch-typing. A BDA report says the prisoners showed consistent improvement, and a small number progressed "phenomenally".

Twenty used the course as a springboard to full-time education within the prison and 15 went on to study part time.

Successful spin-offs included the creation of a lending library, such was the new-found enthusiasm for reading. And a dyslexic prison officer, who had considered leaving the profession, began joining classes during his lunch break. He intends to try for his promotion exams again.

The BDA has also worked with the army. New recruits are now screened and, if they are found to be dyslexic, referred to an educational psychologist so a support plan can be devised.

Jane Myers, BDA project co-ordinator, says: "The army found that, when it came to assessments, in the classroom, some new recruits would turn to jelly.

"Their mentality was: 'I didn't go back in the army to go back to school.' The real issue was they were dyslexic. And the army would rather help those soldiers than lose them."

Similarly, some training organisations recognise they have to address the needs of students in vocational qualifications.

For example, Leeds Training and Enterprise Council set up a programme in May this year for 16 to 19-year-olds on Opexplus, a youth training scheme.

Under the Dyslexia Plus initiative, two specialists are teaching training organisations how to provide support once a young person has been identified as dyslexic.

The TEC has also drawn up a good practice guide and envisages a dyslexia co-ordinator will be appointed among interested training providers.

Catherine Newmarch, programme co-ordinator, says: "In the past, we've had quite a few young people say they were told they were dyslexic at school. It scared some trainers because they didn't know what to do about it. But this programme aims to equip them to help the students."

Experts point out, that with the right support, dyslexic adults can flourish. One inmate at Pentonville Prison began to look forward to the weekends he was locked in his cell so he could catch up on his reading.

As he said: "I'm not afraid of words anymore."

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