How the right support can really improve a dyslexic person’s future prospects
Whenever I tell someone that I work for a dyslexia charity, they are always full of questions, ranging from general curiosity to outright pleas for help. Some want to know what dyslexia actually is or how they can spot it. Others believe they know all about it – “it’s that reading problem, right?” – or they will start talking about a friend or family member they believe may be dyslexic. Whatever the question, one thing is clear: awareness and true understanding of dyslexia is not as it should be.
We need to find a way of making sense of dyslexia for everyone, whether they are a child struggling at school, an adult staying late at work when the office is quiet to get a report finished, or a parent wondering how they can help their child with their spellings when they struggle themselves.
We all know that early intervention is a fantastic way of laying the foundations that can help a person with dyslexia go on to achieve to their full potential, but when dyslexia awareness remains an optional part of initial teacher training, how are teachers meant to feel able to identify and support a student showing indications of dyslexia? Teachers should feel empowered and comfortable in identifying children with specific learning difficulties (SpLDs), not nervous and afraid.
Employers should be aware of the positives of employing a person with dyslexia and understand about reasonable adjustments. Employees should feel able to speak openly to their employer about dyslexia and how it affects them, without fear of being held back.
The theme for this year’s Dyslexia Awareness Week is “Making Sense of Dyslexia” and in this article I try to do just that by looking at how dyslexia affects people in different parts of their life – at home, in education and in the workplace.
The issues that can arise from dyslexia at home can range from encouraging a reluctant reader, to supporting a parent with dyslexia. One of the most important things for a parent or carer with a child with dyslexia is to realise that they are not alone. Joining a local dyslexia association or group and speaking with other parents in a similar situation can help take the fear out of what you are doing and give you advice from others on what has helped and what hasn’t.
When it comes to identifying the main problems facing people trying to support their child at home, a lot of it comes down to frustration. Many parents think that their child is the only one having difficulties. It is important to remember that you are not the only parent having these feelings.
As can often be the case, a parent may suspect dyslexia in their child and want to both get and offer support for them, but because the child’s dyslexia has not been officially identified, they don’t know where to start. There are numerous identification lists available online that offer indications and signs of dyslexia to be aware of for different age groups. It is also important to raise any concerns with your child’s school by making an appointment with the school SENCO.
When it comes to being a parent struggling to support their child at home, the best advice is often to become an expert; indeed, many parents have more knowledge about dyslexia than their child’s teacher. Many excellent teachers also started this way – struggling to support their own child – before deciding to do a course. They now not only help their own child, but support many others.
Sarah Chapman – winner of the Positive Role Model for Disability award at the National Diversity Awards in 2014, British Dyslexia Association Ambassador and Behaviour Support Mentor for Aspire People – was identified with dyslexia in her first year at university, aged 27, after battling hard to turn her life around following, as she says, being failed so badly at school.
On her life now, Sarah says: “Today I am a first class mature student proudly typing up my dissertation, which features the lived experiences of 320 dyslexic students like me from higher education institutions all over the UK. Interestingly, 52.98 per cent of those students were not identified as dyslexic until they reached university, 16.3 per cent were identified in further education and just 21.94 per cent were identified at school. These are obviously just some of the few dyslexic students that made it to university in the first place.”
Given the struggles she had at primary school, it is amazing that Sarah has managed not just to build her confidence and gain impressive qualifications, but also to work supporting others in the same situation. “In school I was merely a failure, someone who didn’t work or try hard enough, was not very intelligent, who felt stupid and confused. I was rebellious, angry and I reached a point where I just didn’t care.
“When I asked the participants in my study to describe the feeling of being identified as dyslexic, 171 of them said the word ‘relieved’, and this is how it was for me. It was an immense feeling knowing that it was not just me and that there was a reason I struggled so much at school. I wish that I had been identified sooner and given the right intervention to bridge the gaps in my learning before the damage was caused to my confidence and self-esteem.”
As a person who was identified later on in life with dyslexia, Sarah is a huge advocate of early intervention and believes that being dyslexic does not have to be an issue if children are taught how to understand their differences. She says that being identified as dyslexic should not be seen as labelling, but instead as a call for action in understanding a way forward.
Her advice to anyone who does not understand the complexities of dyslexia is to have an open mind. “Dyslexia is not a reading and writing problem, but rather a difference in the way our brains are wired, how we process, store and retrieve information and how we think and feel. It is certainly not due to a lack of effort as dyslexics actually work incredibly hard”, says Sarah. “Dyslexics need a more holistic and multi-sensory approach to learning. Just know that dyslexics are perfectly capable of being successful in anything they want to do and if given the opportunity will thrive.”
In the workplace
Job interviews can be difficult enough for the most prepared individual, but add the tests many employers ask interviewees to complete and the fear of how a potential employer may react to being told you are dyslexic and it is no wonder many chose to not identify their difficulty until problems begin to surface. With more people becoming aware of schemes such as Access to Work, hopefully, this will change, but there is still a long way to go. Yet with news earlier this year that GCHQ, the British Intelligence Agency, had employed over 100 dyslexic and dyspraxic individuals because of their skills in decoding complicated patterns or sequences, dyslexia in the workplace is becoming more of a talking point.
However, it isn’t just in the workplace that people can face difficulty; what about those with a fantastic idea for a business who struggle to fight their way through the paperwork. We can all name famous entrepreneurs with dyslexia, from Richard Branson to Jamie Oliver and Steve Jobs, but especially at a time when many small businesses and start-ups are failing, dyslexia can certainly make the process more difficult.
Bethan Arundel, charity coordinator at Good Story, a charity that helps young creative entrepreneurs in the UK, has been piloting a mentoring programme for dyslexic entrepreneurs. She said, “Dyslexic entrepreneurs typically struggle with tasks such as email communication, writing business plans, drafting work schedules and determining cash flows; all of which are essential to running a successful business. This is why it is vital that dyslexic entrepreneurs have access to trained mentors who can not only support them with these tasks, but can also help devise coping strategies so they don’t have to depend on people’s help in the long term.”
The pilot programme saw five dyslexic entrepreneurs receive a workplace needs assessment to identify their weaknesses and suggest adjustments that could help, as well as a dedicated mentor who had been trained in dyslexia awareness. Two of the mentors were even dyslexic themselves.
Another important part of the programme was offering dyslexia awareness training to the entrepreneurs themselves as many of them, despite being dyslexic, felt they needed to be more aware of the condition and following the training, all agreed they felt more confident. One of the entrepreneurs, Ellen, said, “Before I met my mentor, I really struggled to cope with my dyslexia. I felt anxious and had a lack of confidence. Through working with my mentor on the programme my confidence has now flourished. I am learning new coping strategies and how to adapt them not just to my working life, but also my personal life too.”
This shows that there will always be a need for increased awareness and that identification is really only the start of the journey. Whether you are in an office, a supermarket or sat at the dining room table writing out a business plan there are going to be challenges and so much about success is to do with improving your awareness and that of those around you.
Bethan added, “For any dyslexic entrepreneurs who want to turn their passion into a successful business, don’t let the barriers stop you. Having a mentor will help you reach a level of potential you probably never thought possible. Whether your business succeeds or not, having that support will undoubtedly propel you to a better future and will give you the confidence to believe it’s all possible.”
How can I help?
One of the best resources we have for raising awareness of dyslexia is you. Share your experiences of dyslexia; talk about both the good and the bad, as well as what works for you. Attend a workshop or organise a coffee morning for other parents struggling to understand the complexities of dyslexia. Offer a friendly ear for a colleague who is struggling and encourage them to ask for help. For those in management, educate yourself about dyslexia and how you can help your staff to feel more supported, confident and, most important of all, happy.
Emma Abdulaal is Media and Communications Officer at the British Dyslexia Association: www.bdadyslexia.org.uk