Lord Addington: Dyslexia Awareness Week is a moment to celebrate how far we have come but remember we have a long way to go

Lord Addington: Dyslexia Awareness Week is a moment to celebrate how far we have come but remember we have a long way to go

As part of Dyslexia Awareness Week, our President Lord Addington shares his experience of dyslexia and his thoughts on #21stcenturydyslexia...

When I was identified as dyslexic back in 1971, teachers were only just becoming aware of the concept of dyslexia. I was a communicative child but had dreadful spelling and writing skills – if you couldn’t spot I was dyslexic, you wouldn’t be able to spot anyone – so although the level of knowledge just wasn’t there for less acute cases, my dyslexia was picked up. 

I left school in 1981 and support for dyslexia in school wasn’t formally introduced to 1983, so the reality of support when I was at school was to be sat in a classroom and the teachers would say, “Oh well, we’re not sure what to do with him, don’t hassle him too much.”  

The first time I took my exams, unsurprisingly, I failed miserably. But the second time round, it was discovered I could have a scribe and I passed. 

Without the support of my mother, I would have left school without any qualifications and never have gone on to Aberdeen University. She was the original tiger parent and went on to be a member of the British Dyslexia Association council. 

Entering the House of Lords in 1986 was a revelation. Your impact as a member comes from your ability to verbally articulate an argument, so being dyslexic suddenly was less of an issue. Although I have still had to approach my speeches differently to my non-dyslexic colleagues. Most members will prepare everything they’re going to say, I don’t, I go to the nub of the thing and then I extemporise on from that. 

In the chamber of the House of Lords, assistive technology for dyslexia remains impractical. But in my work outside of the chamber from my early days as a member I have used assistive technology. 

The first piece of technology I used to assist with my dyslexia was one that had been around for a long time, the telephone. We’re lucky as peers that if you phone someone up they’re normally more than happy to explain to you the crux of the matter. 

Since the mid-90s, I have been using assistive technology designed specifically to help dyslexics. Early voice-recognition software had its issues but was helpful. Technology that reads back to you I have always found useful for checking the most important things I write. In reality though technology needs to fit into the life you are living and early assistive technology just didn’t on many occasions. 

Today, assistive technology is incomparably better than its ancestors. Although that is badly known. 

A lot of technology originally designed as niche solutions for people with dyslexia have become mainstream, take voice-recognition software like Siri or Amazon Echo or the readback functions integrated into Office. 

Specialist technology has become so much more convenient also, voice recognition software used to be notoriously laborious to set up, taking many hours to “train” the software and even then, never being as accurate as you’d hope. Today, it takes a few minutes to set up and is accurate enough for me to write everything with it. 

Other than me, there about half a dozen to a dozen members of the House of Lords who I’m aware of that are dyslexic. But we are one part of a wider organisation. ParliAble support with assistive technology for all people with disabilities among the over 5,000 members and peers, their staff, staff of both Houses of Parliament, and others who work on the parliamentary estate. 

In the House of Lords, politics more widely and in government, people’s awareness firstly of dyslexia and then the range of assistive technology available is patchy. I still come across ministers and senior civil servants in the Department for Education that don’t quite understand what assistive technology can do. As apprenticeships legislation passed through the House of Lords a few years ago, I raised issues around the English test involved inhibiting people with dyslexia accessing apprenticeships. 

Generally, we are in a golden age of understanding dyslexia and assistive technology. Dyslexia brings so many benefits and the challenges are much more manageable than ever before. 
I would say to anyone out there with dyslexia that if you have had a bad experience in the past with assistive technology, take another look, it is immeasurably easier to use that ten or 15 years ago. Also, make the most of your workplace support schemes, normally there is funding available for assistive technology and employers are required by law to make reasonable adjustments for dyslexics. 

Thanks to technology, dyslexia is no longer the block it once was. At the end of the day, if anyone cares whether you write by tapping a keyboard or speaking to a computer they should really get out more. I would urge people to embrace the great technology available and focus on the positives of 21st century dyslexia. 

About Lord Addington: 

Lord Addington has been a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords since 1986 and is currently President of the British Dyslexia Association. Throughout his time in the House of Lords, he has campaigned for better dyslexia identification, understanding and support – previously being his party’s spokesperson for special educational needs, member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology and has worked on many pieces of legislation effecting dyslexia.