PhD & Dyslexia


SpLD PhD: Dyslexics Untied*

by Grace Harvey

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About a year ago, I sent my supervisors a draft of a funding bid I’d been working on. I was trying to get to Oxford University Libraries to read some letters and I was pretty confident that I’d put a strong case together. Yet, when I met with my team, they highlighted a typo which I had missed where I had asked to visit the Boolean library and not the Bodleian. At first this was funny, but then I quickly thought: “Shit, have they forgot that I’m dyslexic. Should I remind them? No, just laugh it off.”

Admittedly, this was pretty funny but it was the first time I’d ever thought about dyslexia being a dirty word or something I wanted to keep hidden. I’m good humoured enough to not be bothered by this and at no point have my tutors ridiculed or judged me for being dyslexic, yet I realised that not only do I not talk about this, nobody in HE really does either.

Based on my own experience, disability support in higher education seems ill-equipped to support postgraduate researchers and fails to understand the move from taught courses to self-directed research. I don’t know whether this is because, like me, nobody likes to talk about it or whether people become fed up of struggling and a) stop looking for help or b) stop studying. For those that try and manage alone, there are only a handful of resources available for arts and humanities PhD students and almost none for supervisors so it ends up feeling like the blind leading the blind. Moving from taught UG to research led PG degrees revealed the extent to which my dyslexia affected my work, and far from developing new strategies to help manage these problems, since starting the PhD my problems have become pronounced. Clear remits, tasks and assignments forced my brain to be logical and coherent- both in terms of structuring an argument and explaining it- but the freedom and flexibility of the PhD seems to hinder my work more than it helps.

At the core of this is the implicit stigma that seems to, or at least I seem to think so, surround these learning difficulties. It’s almost absurd to think of an English PhD student who struggles to read or write and as funny as it can be to include typos, it is mortifying to be moving into the third year of PhD study and still not know how to use commas or prepositions correctly. On a good day, I’m in control of my time, grammar and expression but on a bad day I’ve forgotten everything I’ve read which, as an English student, is quite laughable really.

A lot of people ask me if I ‘own up’ to the fact that I’m dyslexic or want to discuss my ‘diagnosis’, yet the ways the way we talk about specific learning difficulties and this disease- ridden and criminal vocabulary makes it incredibly hard to even want to. I am in the position where I’m now able to receive specialist support from the University, although exactly who or where this support comes from remains to be seen. Don’t get me wrong, it comes with its benefits and I’ve learnt to be creative and pragmatic with my time – this post alone will hopefully demonstrate this. But, between pressures from institutions to complete PhDs in increasingly shorter times and the panic-inducing ‘publish or perish’ mantra that echoes throughout HE, I’m not sure how much longer institutions can continue to neglect these issues.

Top Tips: I don’t want to sound too dramatic here although it definitely reads like a 12-step program. Disclosing disabilities, however they manifest themselves, is a personal decision and the tips I’ve listed below are just bits of advice I wish someone had told me.

Do:

Be honest. And not just with yourself, but others around you. I try to downplay how much dyslexia affects but sometimes its impossible to avoid and my errors often give me away. Confronting it head on means everyone avoids having to deal with the elephant in the room.

Be patient and persevere. Many of the frustrations I experience are shared with other PhD students who aren’t dyslexic so learning to deal with these is often part of the PhD process. I’ve found chatting (or venting) to other students help create new strategies of both academic and personal support.

Don’t:

Struggle alone. Asking for help when you need it can be hard but if you need it, you have to find it. It’s harder to find support networks at PhD levels and it doesn’t have to be your supervisor or a professional but someone somewhere will have some words of encouragement and when you’re ready, will be able to help you find appropriate support.

Be scared to tell people. This took me a while to learn but if people are going to judge you or refuse to support you then this is their error – it can also be illegal discrimination– so don’t be scared to challenge them.

Think you’re an idiot. This is, perhaps, the hardest one of all and it’s simply not true.

*This is a pun and not a typo. I actually stole/borrowed this from an inter-mural football team at Newcastle University in 2011.

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