Rick Bell highlights the lack of access to assistive technology for younger learners.
Amidst the disruption to education caused by the pandemic, there has been a significant difference in the digital support provided to dyslexic students in schools and higher education. The Equality Act’s ‘right to reasonable adjustments’ claimed by students in higher education allowed them to cope with studying remotely, yet younger learners who relied on the help of teaching assistants were profoundly affected by withdrawal from classrooms.
It surprises some to learn that, in the UK, digital support for dyslexic learners may not be available until they reach further education. Students can apply for the Government’s Disabled Students’ Allowance to cover the costs of specialist equipment, non-medical helpers and more. But in those formative early years, support is often essential in improving outcomes and, perhaps ironically, in reaching higher education. Not employing these rights may impinge individuals’ ability to achieve the grades needed to continue to learn outside of their school’s walls.
It is usually the job of the classroom assistant to give extra help and guidance for learners with special educational needs, including dyslexia. But this dependency on face-to- face support did not allow dyslexic children learning at home during lockdowns to self-serve and progress at the same speed as their peers, the exception being in cases where they were able to access digital literacy tools tailored to their needs. The need for these kinds of tools is clear and has been amplified during the pandemic because technology facilitates learning outside of the classroom.
Learning loss amongst SEN students has been a significant problem in the past year, exacerbated by the continued disruption to schools through bouts of self-isolation. Up until recently, it was widely believed that only around 5% of schoolchildren experience dyslexia, however more recent figures from Dyslexia Action – which offers training to teachers supporting dyslexic students – suggests that the figure is more likely to be around 16%.
When deployed early, literacy software which supports neurodiverse people, including those with dyslexia, can make a profound difference to their development. It comprises tools such as spell checkers and word prediction, text-to- speech options and screen masks which improve focus and concentration. This software is readily available yet the need for assistive technology to support dyslexic learners is not currently being met in many instances.
If we look at other interesting models of support, Norway’s innovative and effective approach stands out. Its government offers a similar support scheme to the UK’s DSA, called the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV), but this financial contribution is available to all learners even when they are young. The average age of diagnosis is nine or ten and from then, the individual is welcomed to apply for life-long support through their school years, higher education and work-life, recognising that dyslexia is for life.
The key aim for NAV is to foster a well-functioning job market, provide the right services and benefits to citizens and to prevent people from being on benefits unnecessarily. The UK’s alternative is perhaps the much-discussed ‘disability passport’ which would prevent an individual from having to argue or prove their right to help and support at different stages of their life.
Clearly, there are longer-term repercussions for society and the economy of not giving the right support to learners at the earliest stages of their development. The pandemic has highlighted this, shining a light on the needs of dyslexic students suffering unfairly at the lack of assistive technology to support them and prevent unnecessary learning loss. More must be done to support these young learners so that they can be set up for life-long success.