By Alison Green, Additional Learning Support Tutor at Bournemouth University
Within UK higher education institutions, dyslexia is the most commonly self-declared disability.
It is therefore important that higher education institutions are prepared and equipped to deal with students who decide to seek further help.
The benefits of disclosure at an early stage are clear: following a diagnosis from an educational psychologist, a student with dyslexia can obtain Disabled Students’ Allowances to fund additional academic support throughout their degree from a specialist tutor.
Once diagnosed, adjustments for learning differences can be made such as the allocation of extra time in examinations, the application of marking guidelines to negate difficulties with spelling or grammar and the use of assistive technology.
Such adjustments could also be developed within employment by, for example, encouraging time management strategies through the setting of clear priorities, using a proofreader and utilising the technology that the student brings with them.
Unfortunately, the commonly held perception within society at large and, ironically, on the part of many with dyslexia and dyspraxia, is that these learning differences imply negative manifestations which are neither understood nor appropriately met within the workplace.
Little wonder then that so many students fail to disclose evidence of neurodiversity on application for a work placement or graduate employment.
Dyslexia can be associated with the possession of insightful problem-solving skills and the ability to think multi-dimensionally; the list of dyslexic entrepreneurs, designers, commentators and so on is endless.
Nonetheless, research conducted by Additional Learning Support (ALS) staff at Bournemouth University found that many students applying for work placements consider negative perceptions of dyslexia predominate in the world outside of university: fear of discrimination leads them into keeping secrets.
One student wrote, “I thought it would harm my chances if I disclosed; I had a fear of it lessening my chances as a candidate; I was embarrassed and worried they wouldn’t further my application.”
Thus, all the independent learning strategies acquired at Bournemouth University to guide them through tasks and assessments are subsumed by an expectation of prejudice.
The ALS team encourages the students who pass through their doors to perceive themselves as possessing learning differences as opposed to difficulties or, worse, disabilities. However those who have embraced their dyslexia and exploited the positive talents and traits embodied within their neurodiversity, still feel unable to share the good news with prospective employers.
This notion of keeping secrets is not helped by employers. Few of the placement providers in our research gave students a clear opportunity to disclose dyslexia or any other learning difference on application.
Among the explanations given was the lack of knowledge regarding who is supposed to ask the question, with vague nods in the direction of HR departments. Others claimed that they would never ask a student about learning differences as doing so could be seen as discriminatory.
The problem is, of course, if employers feel unable to ask about anything that’s not a visible disability – and I use that word in the context of the legislation – then neither can they implement adjustments for hidden differences that are covered by the Equality Act. In turn, this perpetuates the cycle of non-disclosure by further condoning the keeping of secrets.
It’s not the fault of the employers: they don’t know what it is that they don’t know. When offered a list of positive traits that dyslexic students can bring to the workplace, very few were recognised by our respondents.
Conversely, most had an expectation of badly written material and other negative traits. Given that few placement providers ask about dyslexia, it’s difficult to explain their perceptions by reference to first-hand experience. On the other hand, when offered a list of reasonable adjustments that their company might be able to make, the majority of employers gave very positive responses: task prioritisation, checking understanding and proofreading of important documents were all seen as reasonable and minimal.
Reasonable and minimal they are indeed, but many of our students struggle to fulfil assigned tasks without them and continue to keep secrets.