I am 24 and currently undertaking a PhD in Civil Engineering at the University of Birmingham, having studied as an undergraduate in the same Department. I have known all my life that I was ‘different’. The first indication was not talking till the age of six, resulting in numerous assessments and a ‘diagnosis’ of dyslexia and dyspraxia at eleven.
I have never had to come to terms with suddenly discovering I have dyslexia and it was was probably easier for me as over half of my family is dyslexic. Throughout compulsory education I used technology wherever possible and was the first student to regularly use a laptop at school. I took apart the school’s computer as it wasn’t fast enough, so I suppose I could be called a geek! When it came to university, I chose a subject that focused on my strengths - maths and design - and limited the amount of essays.
I started University in 2006 and before term began I applied for a DSA needs assessment, supported by my mum as I hate forms! After some negotiation I received a laptop shortly after starting university. I had to pay extra as originally I wasn’t allocated a small enough machine to easily move around Uni. At University I found there was very little difference between me and other, non-dyslexic students. This was probably because I didn’t ask for lecture notes in advance and other reasonable adjustments from my Department. There were various reasons I didn’t ask: I don’t see myself as being ‘disabled’ and therefore didn’t want to make a fuss; notes on the VLE were generally provided before taught sessions anyway, and some, more traditional lecturers still liked chalk and board and therefore no notes were available! In terms of the assistive technology (AT) I was provided with through the DSA, I had received no formal training in its use and found some of it counter intuitive and therefore never really used mind mapping, the digital voice recorder and most of the text to speech software. Nevertheless, I found the voice to text programs amazing and at that point wished I had done more of an essay based subject!
Things changed significantly when during my third year, I was introduced to a group of people who were delivering AT training in a very different way. I was invited to be a ‘Super User’ at the University, the aim being to offer peer support to other students and because of this I was introduced to new AT and given a different perspective on the existing software. I therefore started using mind mapping and referencing software. This proved to be extremely helpful, particularly as I had to carry out a final year research project. Mindmapping enabled me to plan, organise, structure and develop my study, supporting my preference to take a ‘bottom up’ approach to writing up my work. Since then, I have helped a number of friends to get the best out of their AT and this may be a useful avenue for my future career.
By the time I started my Ph.D., I had become a bit of a geek in terms of AT, and because of this I wrote my own needs assessment to include in my Research Council DSA application. This time I was able to get precisely the equipment I needed, which actually proved to be cheaper than if I'd have had an external needs assessment, as I didn't specify any extraneous items. The only problems that occurred were the expenses in purchasing the laptop as the University has strict policies. In terms of specialist study coaching, I have found my one-to-one sessions extremely useful both as an undergraduate and postgraduate student. I have always experienced difficulties with staying on track and I have been able to use relevant time management strategies to organise myself, including setting numerous mini deadlines with my dyslexia support tutor. I have always had great difficulty with organising all my thoughts - mind mapping has ensured I do not lose these thoughts and being able to discuss strategies for getting them down on paper in a one to one session enables me to structure my thoughts so that I can develop them accordingly.
As a student, I understand the trepidation of new students. The most important advice I was given was to talk to the staff at Elms Road and understand you have a choice when it comes to AT provision, including training. Whilst there may be various overlaps, one size certainly does not fit all.
As an undergraduate with dyslexia I found little time to take part in extra- curricular activities, however I did take part in the npower challenge and I believe my success here (getting to the semi-finals) was, in part due to the learning strategies I had developed via the one to one dyslexia support sessions ad my use of AT. Since becoming a PhD student, I have participated in the Talent Pool and BSeen, both of which aim to improve my future employability. I found both of these programmes extremely useful, particularly as the emphasis was on verbal communication. I am also convinced that my dyslexia helped everyone on both of these programmes, as I was often able to provide a different perspective to the status quo, bringing me to the firm conclusion that dyslexia is about difference and with enabling attitudes, strategies and equipment, need never be a ‘disability’.
Andrew Wood, PhD Civil Engineering