Helping to solve the war of words

9th December 1994 at 00:00
Universities, rather than schools and colleges, are taking the lead in tackling dyslexia as a disability. Jonathan Croall meets the students whose talents are beginning to be recognised.

Although Jeremy has been a student at York University for six weeks, he still has trouble finding his way round the campus. He also finds it difficult to keep up with note-taking in lectures, or express his ideas coherently in tutorials.

These problems have nothing to with his intelligence. Like a growing number of university students, Jeremy is dyslexic. As a result he confuses left with right, has difficulty with spelling and ordering his ideas, and sometimes stops in mid-sentence because he knows he's going to mispronounce a word.

"At (primary) school I was thought to be bordering on the mentally handicapped," he remembers. "My work was all jumbled up, it came back covered in red ink, and sometimes the teacher would read it out loud. I could easily have ended up in the D stream of a secondary modern."

Instead, he went to an understanding Quaker school. Passing exams was a struggle, but he managed three O-levels, including English at the fifth attempt.

After some years in casual and voluntary work he returned to college, found he enjoyed studying maths and the sciences, and through an Access course reached the required standard for university. Now 34, he's doing a degree in theoretical physics.

Not so long ago Jeremy would have been unlikely to contemplate higher education or, at best, be struggling to stay the course. But York, like many other universities, is now offering considerable practical support for students hampered by what is now officially recognised as a disability, and one that can involve students spending 50 per cent more time than normal coping with the demands of written work.

According to Donald Schloss, founder member and current chair of the Adult Dyslexia Organisation - established in l991 - the higher education sector is now doing more than either schools or further education to recognise and meet the needs of dyslexics. It is a shift begun in the 90s, spurred on in l992 by Pounds 3 million of Government money made available through the Higher Education Funding Council. "The HEFC has definitely raised awareness," says Schloss, a dyslexic himself. "When people know there is the possibility of funding, the institutions start to move."

The Dyslexia Support Centre at York mirrors the service at a growing number of other universities. It offers students an initial diagnosis, an assessment of their needs, advice about organising their work, help with study skills, and support in applying to local education authorities for money to pay for equipment and other kinds of help.

Students are alerted to the service early on. If they mention dyslexia on their UCAS form, they immediately receive a letter from the centre outlining how it can help. But according to Norman Rea, the university's disability adviser, most of those who make contact once they've started their course, have either not mentioned it on the form, or have not been aware of the precise nature of their problem.

"Many of them have struggled at school, and are anxious about their difficulties," he says. "Being diagnosed as dyslexic can give them a lot of confidence. As one mature student said: 'It's such a relief to know I'm not stupid'."

The centre at York employs an independent dyslexia consultant who provides individual help to the students. Chris Stephens, who covers the two Leeds universities as well as York, has as many as 300 students on his books. "I try to ensure that long-term they can work as independently and effectively as possible," he explains.

One of his clients at the centre today is Janet, a first-year social sciences student who has problems with spelling and pronouncing unfamiliar words. He shows her some exercises that will help her with certain words, and underlines the importance of daily revision of her word-list. "It means you're using all the senses to prop up your memory," he explains.

Janet is a mature student who at school was deemed lazy and not very bright. Later she took an Open University course before being accepted at York. "People told me I couldn't do things, that I was too thick to study at a higher level," she recalls. "But I felt I had a lot more in me."

Her case and that of Jeremy are typical. Mature students figure prominently amongst those using dyslexia services around the country. "Some people are so determined and motivated to succeed, despite incredible setbacks," says Charmaine Michelson, senior lecturer in dyslexia support in student services at South Bank University, London. "They've come back to education having been in dead-end jobs, and realised they're not fulfilling their potential. They're often very talented and creative lateral thinkers, and good at leading a group - an uncanny number here are elected as course representatives."

The surprising fact is that some students can get into university without even realising they're dyslexic, having until now found ways of getting round their difficulties. For them, the diagnosis can be a shock. Dorothy Gilroy, tutor counsellor at Bangor and a leading expert says: "While for some it's a great relief, for others it's devastating. Few drop out, but some take a year off and then come back."

Universities find few dyslexic students studying English literature or languages. They tend to turn up in subjects such as engineering and architecture, where their visual and spatial skills often enable them to excel, or in computer studies, drama and the sciences. Curiously, the 4:1 ratio of boys to girls who are dyslexic at school age doesn't necessarily hold by this stage - at York, for instance, there is no gender imbalance amongst the dyslexic students.

Many universities say they are "overwhelmed" by the number of assessments they are having to undertake. Last year South Bank identified 250 students as dyslexic, and is currently giving regular support to 70 while also trying to deal with a two-month waiting list for assessment. At Brighton University, staff had already seen 50 students by halfway through this term; at the University of North London there are 110 students identified as dyslexic; at Bangor, the first in the field, there are 80 - compared to six in 1978.

Wider access to higher education is one explanation for the explosion in numbers, with many students having taken the access route to university. There's also a knock-on effect from the Warnock Report and the 1981 Education Act, with many children statemented or supported in primary school in the 1980s now reaching university age. In 1993, 2,723 potential students who applied to higher education described themselves as dyslexic on their PCAS or UCCA forms. Of them, 1,803 were accepted.

The greater understanding of dyslexia and the different problems it causes is reflected in the recent mushrooming of university support services. Both last year and this, the HEFC for England made Pounds 3 million of new money available for projects which helped students with disabilities. According to Skill (The National Bureau of Students with Disabilities), 19 of the 87 successful project applications from universities chose to focus on dyslexia.

A report on the initiative is due from the HEFC before Christmas. Meanwhile, this resourcing has enabled universities to help students in all kinds of ways. One of the most crucial is special provision for exams. Dyslexic students can now ask to be in a separate room, have the questions read out to them, or have them printed on coloured paper. They may use a personal reader or an amanuensis, tape their written answers or, if their writing is illegible, type them up. Such help, support workers say, can make a world of difference.

However, while the general picture may be getting brighter, there are still some gloomy areas. One is the difficulty of getting money out of local education authorities through the disabled students' allowance, which was established in 1990.

Funded centrally but administered locally, this allowance has three elements. Students can apply for up to Pounds 1,110 a year to help with small items of equipment, such as books and cassettes; for up to Pounds 3,325 during their course for major items such as computers, tape recorders, printers, and software; and for up to Pounds 4,430 a year for non-medical help - such as proof readers, or outsiders offering one-to-one support.

Universities complain that LEA practice varies enormously, especially over the third category where there is a lot of confusion and dispute over interpretation of the allowance - one support worker describes it as "a bureaucratic nightmare". While many LEAs are supportive and efficient, others can prove unsympathetic and obstructive, sometimes delaying decisions for up to a year, and causing some students to abandon their applications because of the stress and time involved.

"Grants officers interpret the guidelines the way they want to, and some use dirty delaying tactics," says Charmaine Michelson, one of many critics. "They may ask for two or three external assessments, which the students themselves have to pay for, wait a month to acknowledge their receipt, and then ask their own educational psychologist to see the student."

Donald Schloss confirms that there is ignorance of dyslexia in some local authorities. In a recent case, fought and won only after several months, a student had applied for a colour computer monitor which would give access to word-processing software with colour-coded symbols and visual clues. "They wanted to give him a black and white monitor which showed they just didn't understand what his real needs were."

But there are also internal difficulties. "There will be university staff who don't believe there's any such thing as dyslexia," says Chris Stephens. "The process of educating them is an on-going one."

Another dyslexia support worker is more blunt. "Course directors can be very difficult and obstructive about assistance," she says. "They talk of a lowering of standards, of the students being helped too much, of fears that they won't be able to cope in the real world. They don't see that the students are only asking for parity, and that what they have to cope with is different to the obstacles most people face."

According to Donald Schloss, "they wouldn't question the ability of a blind student - they would just deal with the fact that the student was blind. "

Some universities organise meetings within departments, to raise awareness amongst staff of the nature of dyslexia. Others set up workshops, in which lecturers are given tasks that will highlight the pressures created by dyslexia. In one at the University of North London, a lecturer had to read from a paper placed on the floor while he did press-ups, to demonstrate how exhausting reading can be for dyslexics.

There are also criticisms of poor teaching styles, which tend to penalise dyslexic students especially - for example, where a lecturer speaks, writes and uses an overhead projector simultaneously, refuses to highlight their main points, or to summarise. Some lecturers will not even allow dyslexic students to tape their lectures, citing an anxiety about copyright.

Nor is marking always done with sensitivity. "Some teachers don't know how to mark positively," says one academic. "Dyslexic students need precise and concrete comments. But you get staff writing things like 'You must improve your English'. It's like telling a blind person that they must improve their sight."

Providing emotional support is seen as important as giving practical help. Dyslexic herself, Trudy Hancock at Brighton University observes: "We try to offer them instant understanding. Being assessed by a psychologist can be very stressful. When they're told they're dyslexic, many students lose their self-esteem and need a lot of counselling."

The prop may take the form of weekly informal support groups, such as those run at the University of North London. "Many students are angry that the system didn't pick up their problem earlier," says Ellen Morgan, co-ordinator of the university's support service. "It's important that they feel able to express those kind of feelings."

She has introduced a mentor scheme, which trains half a dozen graduates to work with dyslexic students. This was one of several ideas she picked up from a visit to America where, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, universities have to provide what a student needs, or face court action. "Institutions there are under enormous pressure, but it works," she says. "It costs a fortune, but it means that many students who would otherwise be marginalised are succeeding. "

Charmaine Michelson speaks for many when she says: "These are bright, creative and impressive people, who are quite capable of landing up in high-flying jobs. I wish all students had their sticking power."

Further information from: Adult Dyslexia Organisation, 336 Brixton Road, London SW9 7AA. Helpline: 071-924 9559. Membership is free to all dyslexics. Other members include psychologists, teachers, speech therapists and others with an interest in dyslexia. The association is currently compiling a list of professionals recommended by dyslexics for their services.

Skill: The National Bureau for Students with Disabilities has offices at the same address. Tel: 071-274 0565.

The names of the students have been changed.

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