In 2010, a year after I was diagnosed with dyslexia, I was thrown out of a major London university after applying for help for my studies. Within two weeks of me starting my graduate course at Cambridge, a routine test at the disabilities centre flagged me up with adult inattentive-hyperactive ADHD.
Dyslexia is a term for disorders that involve difficulty in reading, understanding words and symbols. It also affects how I speak and how I hear other people. ADHD isn’t so well defined, but is categorised as being distracted and fidgety, a short attention span and impulsivity. In my case, it matches standard criteria for adult women with ADHD.
My educational history has been somewhat sisyphean, except the boulder is mountains of readable material, no help and assholes perched on the top of the rock whining ‘It’s not a real thing, it’s in your head, just work haaaaaarrder!’
Now I’m graduating, I want to share some things that helped me keep going.
1. Get Help!
If you think you have anything that may be affecting how you learn or your life, it’s better to find out what exactly is going on.
Get a signed diagnosis of your learning disability from a learning disabilities psychologist. Most universities will have a budget to allow you to get tested, but if this is not possible charities like Dyslexia Action have funds to help you get diagnosed.
You will then need to fill out a DSA form from the Student Loans Company.
Applying for DSA is not simple for anyone for disabilities. It’s a 34 pages of paper you have to fill out when you have a disabilities diagnosis. If you need help filling it out, go to the disabilities office where they can go through it with you, or ask a trusted friend to look over it.
With a learning disorder, you will be entitled to extra time in exams, and assistive technology. A tutor will be assigned to you who can help you with strategies to learn in your own way. This does not put you at an advantage to anyone else around you. If you want help, you should have help. International students: You are also entitled to get help!
2. Escape terrible people
Particularly people who make fun of disabilities in passing conversation. It’s a bargain I strike between defending myself and bringing a conversation down by sounding like the most serious person in the world.
People thought that because they couldn’t see a disability, it couldn’t exist. I got reminded that women ‘Just aren’t dyslexic!’. I tried hard to laugh it all off, but I still felt embarrassed. Maybe I was an impostor and a bad student for learning differently?
I don’t talk to those people anymore. I found academics who were my allies and who understood my needs. Learning disabilities don’t discriminate; there are lower rates of diagnosis for women and minorities due to restrictions to diagnosis.
3. Your time is your own
Once you start learning on your own terms you’ll probably have a different study timetable to other people. Say ‘No’ so you get more time to give yourself a break. You’re going to need extra time to read if you have reading difficulties, or extra time to complete assignments. Give yourself an extra five minutes to get to places or meetings if you find you get distracted easily.
4. Learn about your brain
People like those above tend not to like things like introspection and changing yourself.
I was studying 12 hours a day just to pass exams. I was tired. Sitting in the library for hours, infinitely copying out notes was not working for me. I could not absorb text. What did work for me was drawing out concepts and limiting myself to six hours a day maximum for study. I got made fun of because, according to young engineers, “drawing is a soft subject”. I now use a combination of learning methods that have been proven useful in research.
It’s okay to take breaks in your career and study to work out how your brain works.
5. Take care of your health
My big problem was sleep. I have never had a regular sleep pattern until this year. I stayed up well after midnight reading or just being distracted by anything nearby. Student life doesn’t help this. You’re encouraged to get out and study, meet people and do experiments in the lab after 7pm.
Set yourself hard limits. It’s going to suck at first, because no one else you know will be doing that. But you’ll get your papers in on time, have better friendships and relax more.
Want more advice? Cambridge Speaks its Mind is an information sharing project, set up to help students who feel like their experiences have been discounted.