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My Dyslexia Story: Ellena Napier

Monday 3 July 2023

At school during the 1990's I was always put in 'special needs' at various points, but no diagnosis or even attempt at one was ever made. Being placed in such a class, especially as a teenager. I worked just hard enough to be 'released' from such a group. I had no understanding as to why I could not learn like my peers and was given zero tools as to navigate the education system. Despite trying so hard, I was looked upon as a 'difficult' student who had no hope - as my school reports attest to.

I received a diagnosis aged 36 at Uni. Many of my younger peers who also needed DSA would not access the support because a)the hoops and perseverance required to actually get it and b)the negative connotation that still surrounds 'learning difference' and not wanting to be seen as 'not able'.

I also did not receive specific help at my uni - and my trusty document outlining what help I 'should' receive was not read or adhered to by lecturers - essentially I was left to figure out/ decipher what I needed to do to learn by myself. A sad reality that the education system has not changed that much since I was at school.

My age and sheer determination powered me through, but my younger self would have given up - because I was tired and frustrated at 'the system' - lecturers did not know how to help - because they were not trained on how to support different/alternative learners, and they are over worked themselves.

DSA can help with writing - but it cannot help with a practical side of a course. One may say that because it is practical - it would be easier - but that is still based on the understanding that the student understands the language being used to describe a task.

Last week, my acting degree results came in: I bagged myself a 1:1 I got a First-Class Honours Degree! And the best bit, I smashed it at 79.3%!!!!!!! I am showing off, because this is awarded to a girl, who in her previous (quite frankly traumatic) experience of education, was consistently told she was ‘lazy’, ‘never concentrates’, ‘if only she put effort in’ and my personal fave – ‘she will never amount to much’

Those words stay with a person, but I never let it define me, in fact it has driven me like a propeller – a 1:1 doesn’t necessarily mean much outside of academia, especially in the performance industry, but I didn’t put the intense hard work to achieve it for that – I did it for MYSELF! The last three years have been a personal mission, to prove the education system and those words written in my school reports, WRONG! I didn’t fail school – school failed me.

That realisation has taken some time to digest. I now see my dyslexia is a gift, and if the education system could only harness difference and utilise the benefits, so many young people and adults would not go through their lives frustrated and thinking they are stupid.

I decided to write my final year dissertation around performance and dyslexia; it was one of the most empowering experiences of my academic journey. I learned where my long frustration came from; the logocentric education system is predicated on societal standards of ‘neurotypical’ working memory and processing speed ability, privileging one type of learner. However, recent research and my own experiences quash that.

I discovered that dyslexic individuals have immense capacity for ‘out the box’ thinking (seeing the bigger picture rather instantaneously- compared to peers), creativity (in a multitude of forms), the need for context and a more visceral approach to learning.

Personally, I discovered that I have a talent for writing – who knew, a dyslexic that finds joy in writing! If neurotypicals saw the way I set about writing; it is messy and makes no sense to anyone other than me, but the outcome was consistent A grades for all my written projects. I underestimated just how hard study would be, I have cried, been raging & frustrated, had countless colds and ailments, stressed out of my actual mind, lost a lot of sleep, and never worked so hard in my life – even when I was paid! But last week – it has paid off!

My advice for someone who has recently been diagnosed with dyslexia:

Do some research and empower yourself to understand the benefits of dyslexia. It is a sad reality that workplaces and educational establishments are still not able to fully provide provisions that enable equity and harness the benefits of varied learning styles.

Empowering yourself with the tools that will help you to educate others on how best they can support you. Be proud of your difference, do not hide it for fear of being called stupid - because long standing helpful change will not happen if we hide. I now don't fight my dyslexia - for that just makes me even more tired, I understand my strengths, and know that it takes me more energy sometimes to achieve - always allow yourself compassion. There are things that I can do, that 'neurotypical' people can't do, and vice versa :)

I wrote 5,000 words on it in my final year, so happy to talk further - as I am very passionate about the benefits of being dyslexic.