Dyslexia is commonly recognised as a learning disorder which hinders the use of language, particularly in the case of reading. But is this diagnosis becoming all too easy for students to acquire, and one which provides more profit than problems?
Apparently, around one in ten people in Britain have been diagnosed with Dyslexia, but recently the number of students in Higher Education applying for the screen test is hitting new highs. At the University of Nottingham 40% of undergraduate students have known learning difficulties including Dyslexia. Is it too cynical to question whether such figures are due to a wider awareness of the benefits which come hand in hand with such a diagnosis?
It is widely known that students in Higher Education who have this label are entitled to a free laptop or desktop, complete with the latest software, courtesy of the government. This software is designed to help those with reading or writing difficulties and includes voice recognition technology and planning programs.
These opportunities are all part of a Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA) government scheme. Specific learning difficulties such as Dyslexia are included in this scheme, which offers non-repayable financial help to the sum of up to £5000 to spend on specialist equipment. Furthermore, in the last year this sum has risen by almost 3%, taking the maximum allowance to £5,130. The Times estimates therefore that around £50 million of government money is invested into dyslexic university students each year.
In addition, dyslexic students are of course eligible for extra time in exams. I spoke to a second-year Politics student who was diagnosed with Dyslexia at the age of 7. He explained that he is entitled to 25% extra time in exams and possibly some extensions on essays if he applies for this specifically. Whilst everyone can see the importance of recognising this condition, such policies do of course raise some difficult questions. For example, if a student studying for a Maths degree has a Number Theory exam and the time limit is an hour, a dyslexic candidate will have an extra 15 minutes at his disposal, despite the lack of reading and writing involved in this exam.
Upon reaching new levels of boredom in the Hallward library during the January exam period, I took to eavesdropping on other people’s conversations in order to procrastinate from doing my own revision. I couldn’t help but overhear the grumbles of three scientists who had just returned from an exam. Not only were they bemoaning the famous Hallward library Hitlers, having being sent right back down to the first floor with their tails between their legs for being caught with a packet of fruit pastilles on a food forbidden floor. But in addition to their trivial worries, two of them had been unable to finish their papers in the exam time, but were well aware that their friend (who had an average of 75% already) was still sitting comfortably finishing his paper due to his extra time. This is of course a difficulty with such policies, as those students who do courses other than Arts may have less need for more time, due to the more mathematical or scientific nature of assessments. But the question is where can you draw the line?
A second year student, studying Economics at Nottingham with a current first-class average, said that although he is not officially diagnosed as dyslexic he also gets 25% extra time in exams. “I had it from when I took my GCSE’s and it has carried through all my exams until now. I received it initially because I wrote quite slowly and often spelt words wrong. My teachers at the time referred me to a specialist who you basically pay a lot of money, with the end result being given a certificate saying you struggle with texts and you use this to claim your extra time through the exam board.”
This suggests that even candidates who have no specific diagnosis can claim extra time in exam situations, which undoubtedly aids some students to achieve higher grades than others.
Recently, a friend of mine has been considering applying for the Dyslexia screening. Initially he admitted to me that he had his eyes on Apple’s new Macbook computer. However, on further probing I discovered that his claims of dyslexia might not be completely unfounded. He explained that he had always had difficulty with reading and spelling, but the problem had not been particularly extreme so no action had been taken while he was at school. However, upon coming to university he learnt of the benefits that it is possible to obtain from being diagnosed. Realising that he would in fact be better off being dyslexic than not, he made the arrangements to be tested. He even admitted that the test couldn’t come at a better time as he had not done as well as he’d hoped in the January exams, the extra time in the summer could help him climb the grade boundaries. Although he is yet to have his second screening he remains optimistic that he has given enough evidence to provide him with the diagnosis he hopes for.
However, having a young relative who is severely dyslexic, I am in no way questioning whether this condition exists or the emotional and educational strains which arise from it. I have seen the problems it can cause for a young child who struggles to spell and process texts and the dilemmas this presents his parents. Whilst some schools are evidently far better equipped to deal with children with learning difficulties, changing schools would involve him leaving behind all that he has known for the past five years. This in itself has been a particularly challenging decision for his parents to make on his behalf.
In an article published by The Times in 2007, titled ‘Dyslexia: a label to get you off the hook?’, Professor Julian Elliott from Durham University explained that he believed that Dyslexia to be nothing more than poor reading ability. He also suggests that the diagnosis has simply become an umbrella term which means nothing and enables students in higher education to abuse the system.
I spoke to Barbara Taylor, Head of Academic Support at Nottingham University, about this controversial issue. She explained that she has become tired of the sort of comment displayed in the aforementioned article, believing it to be ill-informed. She clarified, “The extra time in examinations is designed to create a level playing field. Many dyslexic students have slower processing speeds therefore they will be slower at reading material on the papers, and reading through their answers to check them. In addition, they often have much slower writing speeds— the recognized average writing speed for a student in Higher Education is around 25 words per minute; some dyslexic students produce 15 words a minute. In timed situations if a student is writing 10 words less per minute, in an hour they may write 600 words less. The University does not automatically provide extensions to deadlines for course-work; students have to negotiate these with their module convener just as other students do.”
Ms Taylor also struggles to believe that students simply have their eyes on new equipment; “Given that computers are much less expensive than they used to be I would question why anyone would want to go down that route. There are a number of reasons for the growth in the numbers of students coming forward for screening: firstly, we have more students at the University; secondly, awareness of dyslexia is growing both among the students and also among the staff. Students talk to other students who are becoming more comfortable with saying that they are themselves dyslexic and recommending that their friend investigate it — partly because there is support available but also because they are aware of the distress that unrecognized dyslexia can bring.”
These valid points render the situation more complex than those grumbling Science students consider it. Perhaps it is a case of a few individuals abusing the system and thus undermining the real difficulties faced by students who are Dyslexic. Although a solution to these complaints seems near impossible, I can’t help feeling the government might be missing a trick which could save them some of the allocated £50 million they spend. The British Dyslexia Association state that the condition is likely to be present at birth and will continue throughout a person’s lifetime. If this is indeed the case, the solution seems to lie in compulsory screening in primary schools for every child at around the age of 5 or 6 to prevent this situation occurring later in Higher Education.