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Dyslexia and me: Francesca Palser

Tuesday 22 October 2019

Written by: Francesca Palser

I struggled at a young age academically and I was in bottom sets for all subjects. My mum used to blame it on being an August baby- I think that was certainly part of the problem at that age since a lot of my peers already had nearly a year more of growing up. But being an August baby could not explain my lack of engagement and struggle with picking things up as quickly as my fellow classmates could. When I was about seven years old, I was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia, not that it meant too much to me at the time since I had no understanding of the condition.

As the years went on, I gradually moved up sets in certain subjects, but I still believed that I was below average, even “stupid”. I was never into reading when I was younger, mostly because it took me so long to get through a book. The teacher would ask us to read a page in class and most would get through it in less than half the time it took me. I was embarrassed by this, so I would usually skim the page to make it look like I finished it within the same time. However, I would never take in anything on the page; I would have to read something at least twice at my own pace in order to absorb the information. My teachers were not exactly encouraging, they just believed I was below average, unacademic and “in my own little world” (which most of the time I was, but probably because I had little support). The only “extra support” I did get was when the less able kids were excluded from the rest of the class and put into another room where we had to recite the same word over and over again to improve our hand writing and spelling- it was both patronising and demeaning. My struggle was not exclusive to school; my first ballet lesson I was shouted at by the instructor for not knowing my left foot from my right foot. It was also a long time after all my friends before I learnt to tie my own shoelaces.

During most of my primary school years I felt slightly inadequate compared to the majority of my class. However, in year 6 I gained more confidence, possibly because I discovered I was quite good at some things- I played netball for the school, was a good golfer for my age and actually I was rather good at maths (although my teacher did not seem to see this because I had always been below average up until then). But it still was not easy; one time in class we were counting numbers up to 20 in French and when it came to my turn, I just could not remember what the next number was (the only one to do so). This was not because I was not listening or trying to engage, it was simply due to the fact my short-term memory was so poor and I had to repeat words/numbers over and over again in order for it to finally get ingrained in my brain. The teacher shouted at me and I was humiliated in front of all of my class. I went home crying and then learnt numbers up to 20 in French so it would never happen again. I then shocked my teachers in my SATS by getting a 5 in Maths, 5 in English and a 4 in Science (despite being in the bottom set).

It was not until secondary school that I really started to discover that I was not so useless as my primary school teachers made me out to be. I was in one of the top sets for maths all throughout my secondary school years, and I progressed well in both Science and English. I was never the bright one, but I was exceeding expectations. I had learnt to manage my dyslexia and dyspraxia, so I was able to actually start enjoying learning. By the end of secondary school, I believed that because I had caught up with my peers that I was no longer dyslexic and dyspraxic, i.e. no longer “thick”, because unfortunately at the time that is what I had perceived it to mean, probably due to the way I had been treated when I was younger. So, I never got the extra help I should have received. I sat my exams alongside my year and was given the same amount of time as everyone else. However, I struggled to fit in all the revision I hoped, due to the fact I was such a slow learner. I also found that I would run out of time in exams, especially with the English Language and History papers. You had to absorb information from a number of sources in a limited time frame- I just did not have the ability to process the information, interpret it and write my thoughts in such a short space of time. Despite this, I did rather well in my GCSE’s (achieving 3 A*s and 8 As) and again exceeded expectations and surprised all my teachers in the process.

In college, I was studying the subjects I was good at, but I struggled with the workload. I decided that after all, I probably was still dyslexic and I should try and get all the help I needed. I did some tests through my sixth form and struggled with one in particular; the reading and comprehension test. I found that whenever I read a text once I would only have taken a fraction of it in, so in order to answer questions on a passage I would have to read it at least twice and even then I would have to go back to find the answer hidden in the passage. But I was competent enough in the other tests, including spelling, which had gradually improved for me as time went on. In the end, the college decided I still had dyslexia, but I had learnt how to manage it through my hard work. But they also said I was not “dyslexic enough” to receive any extra help. This was very frustrating at the time because one of my close friends was receiving help. One of the teachers at our college suspected she may have dyslexia and so was tested and diagnosed. This came as a shock to me, as again I still had this indoctrination in my head that you cannot be intelligent and have dyslexia; and my friend was certainly very intelligent. Her dyslexia was also different to mine. She would finish work in twice the length of time it took me and she seemed to process things quicker than myself. So, it seemed unfair that I was not receiving extra help too. But as time went on I did see how she struggled in comparison to the “average student” and in different ways to myself; her spelling was “below average” for our age and she was not competent at reading out loud- I imagine words jump around the page for her like it used to for me (not so much anymore). This made me realise two things; just because you have dyslexia and/or dyspraxia does not mean you are unintelligent; in fact some of the cleverest and most successful people that have stepped foot on this planet had/have dyslexia. Secondly, dyslexia can come in different forms; for some people their dyslexia is more obvious, some more severe and some struggle with completely different things to another person with dyslexia. So, I got through my ALevels as best as I could, and I did well; achieving AAB. But unsurprisingly, I ran out of time with most of my papers, again struggling the most with the source-based paper in history (I retook it twice and got a C, yet got an A in the non-source paper, showing it was not down to my ability, I merely could not get through the necessary procedures efficiently in the time frame I was given).

With my good Alevels I managed to get a place at the University of Bristol studying Economics and Politics. If I told my primary school teachers now, they would not believe me! I found first year a lot harder than my fellow university students seemed to. This was because I could not keep on top of all the workload, no matter how hard I tried; I was simply too slow at reading, processing, writing, etc. I got through by prioritising and managed to scrape a 2.1 in my first year due to my hard work. When it came to the second year, the difficulty stepped up even more. I tried to plough through until there came to a point where I could not carry on the way I was without some extra help. I went to the Disability Services at university, where they referred me to get another dyslexia test. I was diagnosed with having dyslexia with features of dyspraxia (exactly the same as when I was initially diagnosed at 7). This time the outcome was more successful, as the university offered me extra time in examinations and the consequence of this was more than I could hope for. Yes, I still found that I ran out of time in some examinations, but it was nothing like it was previously. So, my results improved too- I was now achieving a high 2.1! And I am very proud to say that I have now graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Economics and Politics and the future is looking bright.

I am currently undertaking an internship at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London; something I thought I could only ever dream of. My internship has been an amazing experience; I have been exposed to such interesting and important people and information, and I was even lucky enough to visit Number 10 Downing Street and stroke Larry the resident cat. All of this would not have been possible if I was not dyslexic; it is the Summer Diversity Internship Programme designed for people from an ethnic minority, low income background or with a disability. It can be an absolute pain being dyslexic sometimes so I am grateful that employees are taking time to make jobs accessible to those who traditionally would have not been able to do them. I am now hopeful that my dyslexia will not hold me back from achieving greater success in the future.

Over the years, my perception of dyslexia has transformed as I have learnt more about the condition. What has also helped is the way other people’s perception of it seems to be changing for the better. Companies, universities and institutions are recognising it more and putting in place the necessary procedures so that dyslexic people are not at a disadvantage. However, there is still a stigma that remains around dyslexia, as with many other learning difficulties. My closest friend, for example, believes it is all just “labelling theory”. This is both frustrating and upsetting to me and I think it is mostly blamed by the lack of education on the topic. Even as someone that was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia at such a young age, I did not understand what it meant until fairly recently. This is only because I have researched into it and seen how I differ in my way of learning to “the average person”. I do not want other young children to have to go through what I went through; lack of support and believing that you are not intelligent enough, because it certainly knocks your confidence. If both teachers and students were educated more on learning difficulties, I believe it would not only benefit those individuals affected but also society, which would surely become more empathetic, as well as the economy, which would see higher productivity from the more confident and self-aware individuals with learning difficulties being incorporated into the workforce.

Being dyslexic was something I was once embarrassed about but now I embrace it, for it is part of me and the way I think. I have never been so proud of my disability.