Studying with dyspraxia: ‘I never truly understood an academic text’ | Education
When I was aged 16 and an office assistant, I put the company I worked with in a near-criminal position. My job involved “simple” admin tasks, which I processed with the success of a malfunctioning computer, spitting out wrong answers no matter what combinations I tried. Once, I was seconds away from shredding some crucial documents before a colleague stopped me.
Years later I was diagnosed with dyspraxia, a developmental coordination disorder. Suddenly, my life made sense. Growing up, it was like I was on a different page, reading sentences from angles nobody else understood. Dyspraxia is a specific learning difficulty which affects up to 10% of the population. We tend to fob off dyspraxia as dyslexia’s lesser-known “clumsy” cousin, with stereotypes of knocking over cups and getting bruises from missed balls. However, dyspraxia is about mental processing as much as physical coordination, and affects everything from the way I read to how I organise my thoughts.
At school, I excelled in English, while my maths aptitude tests were so poor they didn’t show up on the scale. My teachers called me “stubborn”. The misunderstanding around specific learning difficulties is a twofold thing: people don’t understand their seriousness, and people don’t understand how they can coexist with excellence. We still see intelligence as linear, with levels of success, rather than a spectrum where you might be brilliant in some areas and require support in others.
“It took me four years to learn how to write an essay,” says Kaiya Stone, who was diagnosed with dyspraxia, dyslexia and ADHD in her second year at Oxford University. “I see words as pictures. I learned to read by memorising what each one looks like. I realised there are about five extra stages between me seeing what’s on the page and understanding it. I’d read two sentences of an academic text and have done six times as much work as someone else.”
Stone is the creator of Everything is Going to Be KO, a stage show where she discusses growing up with her undiagnosed specific learning difficulties. She will publish a book of the same name with Head of Zeus next year. “Someone commented on YouTube about my show, saying ‘This woman is ruining the term dyslexia. She can’t be dyslexic because she went to Oxford.’ There’s this assumption that you can’t have specific learning difficulties and be a success, which is what actually ruins our understanding of these conditions.”
Emma Lewell-Buck, MP for South Shields, grew up with dyspraxia but wasn’t diagnosed until she was 27. She describes having low self-esteem as a child. “I knew there was something very different about me, and it massively impacted my confidence. Dyspraxics are often the innovators: we come up with the ideas nobody else would think of. I’d be desperate to say something in class, but I was so sure I was wrong that I’d just sit there, bright red, and not put my hand up.”
In 2017, 65% of teachers said that awareness of dyspraxia in their schools was poor or very poor, and 43% of schools did not have a clear process for identifying students with dyspraxia. Natalie Williams, a master’s student at UCL, says her primary school had no idea what dyspraxia was. “I didn’t really get any support. One teacher said I should be able to use a skipping rope because they’d had a student who was an arm amputee who could use one, not realising that they’re completely different disabilities.”
Concerningly, research has suggested that young people with dyspraxia tend to have lower aspirations than their peers, despite the fact that the condition does not affect intelligence. Disabled students are twice as likely not to be in education, employment and training as their non-disabled peers, and far less likely to access higher education if earlier experiences of education have been negative.
During university, difficulties persist for students with specific learning difficulties. In my four years at Oxford, I never truly understood an academic text. Having dyspraxia makes it difficult to process text, and so I became adept at narrowly focusing on one or two sentences from which I could extract a host of ideas. I’ve never grasped the concept of planning an essay – my ideas simply mushroom out of each other.
Stone’s experience was similar. “My whole degree depended on a set of exams at the end of the year. I had this mantra of ‘These exams are never going to be able to represent what I have to offer’, which was a sad mantra to have.”
Despite the challenges of studying at university with a disability, the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) represents an institutional provision, something which is rarely found in the workplace. Although there are some notable exceptions – including the Change 100 programme, which provides internships tailored to the needs of disabled students – the gap between university and employment in terms of awareness of specific learning difficulties is an anxious one to face. Standardised application processes, with CVs and cover letters, can bury the abilities of those with specific learning difficulties who might otherwise bring incredible skills to workplaces.
“I definitely have an anxiety about job applications,” Stone says. “If it takes you three or four times longer than everyone else, you apply for less jobs. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. Employers shouldn’t just be trying to look disability-friendly by trying to make themselves accessible. They need to realise that people with specific learning difficulties are often the most talented people for the jobs – they just present differently.”
Lewell-Buck agrees. “Just two years ago, the government got criticised by the United Nations for creating a hostile environment for people with disabilities, because of the benefit cuts and not putting in the right support for people. These things are led from the top and they filter down and shape how society views people with disabilities.
“Dyspraxia is still a relatively new condition in terms of people’s understanding,” she adds. “We need a cultural shift in the way we see specific learning difficulties.”