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We need to talk more about dyslexia at Cambridge

It’s a bigger issue than you think

British Dyslexia Association cambridge student dyslexia dyslexia in cambridge

Dyslexia. It's a complex word. When you, the everyday reader, first see the word 'dyslexia,' your mind might fly to traits such as having trouble spelling, slow reading, words moving about on a page, those kind of things. In fact, dyslexia is an extremely generalised, umbrella term which covers a hell of a lot of ground.

The British Dyslexia Association states that 'co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor co-ordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia.'

All, in all, dyslexia is one tricky tricky thang.

I myself was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia (a physical coordination disorder) at 13. I was not the consistent top-of-the-class, A* devotee throughout school that many associate with the Cambridge scene. Basically until my mid teens I did average-to-poor in most subjects at school. This was something my teachers found difficult to understand as I worked hard, had got into a selective institution and still did well in a few specific areas such as English and History. It was only when I got to year 8 and reached bottom of my entire school in maths, meaning it was unlikely I would be able to even pass my maths GCSE that my wonderful teacher (shoutout Ms Peric-Matthews utter legend) realised it was more than just a case of taking a while to 'grow into it.'

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Dyslexia – It ain't just reading and writing

My own form of dyslexia mainly consists of problems with processing, e.g. poor short term auditory memory, phonological awareness and motor coordination. They particularly affected areas such as maths, where I found processing and remembering of equations and formulas near impossible, but did not impact so heavily on areas such as reading and writing – things most people tend to associate with dyslexia.

Getting it recognised

I was very fortunate, even at quite a late date, to get my dyslexia recognised. Others are not always so lucky. I was able to get the appropriate help, including extra exam time and the use of a laptop in lessons. Without these adjustments I would never have achieved good grades. I certaintly would not be at this university, writing this article for you now.

Many institutions however still don't really appreciate the constraints that dyslexia can have on someone, particularly a student. Like any condition it varies in severity. It is estimated that 1/10 people have dyslexia but this can range from very mild, such as slow processing or writing abilities, to very severe, meaning some dyslexic people are not able to even read properly until their teens or later.

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When poor hand-eye coordination meets slow motor skills…

My dyslexia is not so extreme that it actively impedes on my everyday life, but in an academic environment it can feel pretty daunting. Simple things such as note-taking in lectures or processing where your supervisor is dismantling your essay can be tough – in such a pressurised and high flying place as Cambridge, dyslexic students can often feel out of touch.

Dyslexia itself has nothing at all to do with general intelligence. Still, when you're having to ask your neighbour to repeat what the lecturer just said for the third time or still having trouble spelling 'medieval' after 3 terms of medieval history papers, it can really hit your self confidence.

Help at Cambridge

Nevertheless, at Cambridge there are places where you can get help. I will forever be indebted to the DRC (disability resource centre) who assist all those classified as 'disabled students' with navigating life at Cam. They provide you with a mental health mentor, assign you a disability advisor, offer study skill workshops before term even starts and you can always request a session with one of the lovely advisors if you want help with anything from essay plans to revision.

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The Holy Grail for those with disabilities

At Cambridge, which has the ability to fund such a facility, dyslexic and other disabled students are extremely lucky to have this on offer. Coming from my school, which still had a pretty good amount of assistance compared to other places of education, the DRC was on a whole other level of support.

Yet, there is more that could be done.

One thing I found problematic was exam season. Organising my use of a laptop and extra time was fine, yet, when timetabling meant I would have almost 8hrs worth of exams in one day with only a 45 minute break in between, it was extremely difficult to try and renegotiate this. The DRC perfectly understood the fact that with my form of dyslexia I would find it immensely draining to do that much in one day. However, as they have no official representation within college or power over college decisions, they had no real way of helping me.

In the end, after a fair amount of poking and prodding I was able to get a 2hr break, even if the uni could not allow for a re-shift of my timetable so I could have an exam on another day. However, the lack of anyone within college with expertise on specific learning difficulties meant everything fell on the already overburdened tutorial office.

Most colleges do have a disability rep on their JCR, but with all due respect, this student will not have the qualifications or training to be able to help with a student coping with dyslexia or other learning difficulties. The DRC is a brilliant resource for us to have, but if its influence cannot reach us within college, vital arrangements for things such as exams could prove detrimental to students with much more severe problems.

Dyslexia is an extremely varied and diverse condition that can be coped with well at Cambridge. Dyslexic students can and should expect good support – all we need now is that little extra push from college to help us on our way.