One of the benefits of being able to interview so many fascinating dyslexic people over the years is that I can learn about how they navigated challenging educational and workplace settings.
Some had supportive families while others had the complete opposite of supportive families – but almost all were trailblazers at some point in their lives because so much of the world and its institutions can put obstacles in their way to success.
THE POWER OF ASK
In the National Transitional Longitudinal Study-2, only 24% of students qualifying for accommodations in high school, made the decision to disclose their LD at the college or university level. So even as demands for coursework reading and writing increased, they did not disclose or ask for accommodations that might have leveled the playing field for them. Many of them would drop out before getting their degree (according to federal research, fewer than 35% of students with disabilities will graduate a 4-year college within 8 years).
What I have learned talking to many different college or post-college folks over the years is that many found their way by become stronger advocates for what they needed – and that is just what members of this community need to do – especially as many institutions of higher learning as well as almost all workplaces have little awareness of dyslexia.
– A single room in student dorms. One college student I interviewed explained that although the policy at her small school was to have “no single rooms,” she said she required it because she needed to study outloud – using her text to speech and reading aloud. One phrase she used when talking to her school dean, was “I need this to be successful as a student…” and “I want to be the best student possible.”
One of our past Board members, Erin Egan, now an international business executive, shared that she petitioned for (and received) an extra room that allowed her to pace while studying. If you need something like this to be successful, then request it.
– Mentor. Many students request tutoring (some colleges provide this without charge) for help with writing, organization of their schedules, or anything else. One student also asked to be put in contact with another dyslexic student – preferably an older student who already knew their way around the campus and developed helpful strategies.
In cases such as this, that student would have to agree – but as they did – and consequently, it helped a great deal in orienting her to the school and knowing what to expect, especially for difficult classes or teachers.
– Establish a Personal Relationship with Teachers. If you are a strong personal learner, it’s not only desirable to have a positive relationship with your teacher, it may be essential. So often we’ve heard students and former students tell us how impossible it was to succeed in a class or subject taught be a teacher who “didn’t like them.”
There should be no embarrassment or guilt about this point; for whatever reason, our learning and memory systems for personal and impersonal learning are separate in our nervous systems and differences can be dramatic between the two for many people. Students who struggle with rote memory typically need to use personal memory strategies to survive. What this means is that being pro-active about developing a personal relationship to a teacher is essential for these students to be successful. Some ways that students do this is to take the initiative talking to teachers outside of classes, speaking up in class discussions, and taking advantage of office hours and review sessions.
One college student I interviewed told me even if she had a teacher who was somewhat distant or difficult to know, she still felt it was important to meet with them at least several times in class. In the process, she showed notes and asked thoughtful questions so the teacher realized she was working hard in the subject and devoting time to it.
The need to have personal connections to teachers is why many dyslexic students prefer smaller colleges and universities. It’s also why the switch to online learning can be more difficult than in-person learning.
Many dyslexia-savvy students know themselves well enough that they also work to research which professor might be a good match for them. This might be looking for an engaging and personable teacher who has a bit of a sense of humor and penchant for stories, over a dry sort who expects students to memorize a book.
If a class is required for a major and is a bad match for a particular student, we’ve heard about those who opt to take the required class at a different university or even over the summer with a different teacher.
DIFFERENCES IN DYSLEXIA-FRIENDLY AND DYSLEXIA-UNFRIENDLY SCHOOLS
The vast majority of colleges and university don’t train faculty about dyslexia, so consequently, students should anticipate having to explain to their professors and TAs why they need accommodations.
HIPAA privacy laws and an absence of any dyslexia student groups may result in students feeling isolated and reluctant or even ignorant about what they they should request.
Contrast this to dyslexic-friendly schools who may have prominent dyslexic faculty members or student support professionals who are proactive about their support for dyslexic students and holding social and positive awareness events about the dyslexia-related strengths.
If you’re at one of the dyslexia-unfriendly or dyslexia-ignorant schools, you may be having to fight for your rights and policy changes all the time, but that’s what you may need to do to make sure you can be successful – and you will also make it easier for the next student who comes along.
At the start of education, parents, teachers, and other family members may have a greater role in asking on behalf of their students. Younger students may not know what they want or have trouble putting into words what they need and some trial and error may be necessary to see what help strategies and / or assistive technology may be necessary.
If your student is having difficulties in school, check to see if the basics are covered. The following is from Dyslexic Advantage Dyslexia at School Survey (over 4600 parents surveyed):
Teachers may forget that a student’s reading level may leave them bewildered by test questions, worksheets, or handouts – and they may not think to let the teacher know or feel embarrassed or shame – so they try to do the best they can or ask a neighbor (the latter is more difficult if learning is remote or social distancing is in place).
Teachers should develop a routine of checking in regularly with their students to make sure their lessons, homework, and tests are completely accessible.
Some students may benefit from the option to use text to speech on a laptop or a Scanning Pen (with earbuds for classroom use).
It’s common for teachers to forget about the need to accommodate “special subject” reading like Social Studies or Science where multiple levels of a text aren’t readily available. Although many states have enacted dyslexia legislation in recent years, the pandemic has overturned many plans to get students appropriate screening, or at least at-risk students identified.
Students should have the option of doing their readings through listening – an option often available with e-texts or audio programs like Bookshare.org or LearningAlly.org. A school may need to have a school subscription to offer their e-books or people-read audiobooks to any students who may need it; if your school doesn’t have this, then she or he may need to qualify for an individual subscription through formal dyslexia testing or a positive screening test through Neurolearning.com
If the list of what to ask for gets rather long, then write it down and have your student practice what they will say to the teacher. Easiest is best. If they have their needs written out then they can hand the page to the teacher. For example, “Because of my dyslexia, I need to have things read to me. Here’s a list of things I need to be successful in your class.”
If you’re the parent, use open-ended questions to check-in as well as specific ones. So for example, you can ask “I wanted to ask you how things are going and if you’re having enough time to finish and check your work.” You can also ask, “would it help if we could have a way you could have the word problems read to you?” (for example, text to-speech, scanning pen, or para-educator).
COPY OF TEXTBOOKS AT HOME
Are you able to read your textbooks ok or would it be better getting an e-book or audiobook? All dyslexic students should also be given the option to have an extra copy of their textbooks at home. When a textbook is sent home with students, they have more time to finish their reading or have a family member read the text to them in some cases.
When you see them working on homework – check-in there as well. Many students aren’t able to fully comprehend the written directions – or they may misinterpret them.
If homework and assignments are posted online on a classroom web page, for instance, then students can use their browser text-to-speech to have pages read to them. Some students may like Rewordify.
SELF-ADVOCACY AT WORK
Self-advocacy at work can take many forms, depending on the severity of one’s challenges.
When we surveyed and interviewed hundreds of people for a wide variety of careers, people said their decisions to disclose were very individual – depending on the work they were being asked to do and what their co-worker or supervisor (if any) situation was like.
DISCLOSING BUT NOT DISCLOSING
Some people told us that they disclosed some requests they might have (for instance not wanting to take notes or write on the board or be the only person to proofread messages before posting to social media) to co-workers or a supervisor, but did not mention dyslexia. For example, one person told us when he was asked to write on the board during a meeting that he said “I can do it, but my handwriting is pretty bad, so you may not be able to read it…” After that, another person volunteered.
A common job that companies, NGOs, or governments recruit recent graduates for is social media management. While many dyslexic people are well-suited to marketing, social media message, and social media trends, a potential weak point is proofreading before the copy goes out. What to do? Some people I’ve interviewed say they avoid disclosing to managers because they worry that work will be taken away from them… and that can be possibility. What others do instead – if they can, is ask another co-worker to look things over before the final copy goes out. They only disclose what they have to – so for instance, saying something such as, “Sometimes there are things I don’t see and I want the final copies to be perfect before it goes out. Can you look things over…”
Some people may prefer to be completely open about their dyslexia (and many positive things definitely can come about this) from day 1. This approach can reduce stresses and pressures of feeling like you have to hide the fact that you’re dyslexic, but it is also possible (especially as few business managers have any formal training about dyslexia and public knowledge is generally low) that negative consequences – like work being taken away from you and other types of bias can result. Many people in entry or middle levels of employment may selectively disclose – and only after they have a positive work history and track record of success. Executives may be more free to disclose because they have already worked their way up.
Self-advocacy can still be necessary at whatever level you are on though, but challenging situations can always arise (being asked to take notes or write on a board during a meeting), work tasks and managers can change unpredictably, and performance reviews may involve periodic test-taking that can be difficult if not impossible for some dyslexic employees – although the tests themselves may have little to do with day to-day work tasks.
Self-advocacy and positive dyslexia awareness is in its infancy in the business world, but there are some positive signs of change. With the rise in awareness about diversity, the benefits of neurodiversity (of which dyslexia is a part) is increasingly being recognized – although the overwhelming majority of companies fall short in the area of specific training and policies to support dyslexic employees.