When I was an undergraduate there was a sign in the disability office at my university which proclaimed ‘Disability= Ability’. I hated it. For me, being dyslexic was not an ability but a frustration and something that set me apart from my peers. To a certain extent I still feel that way, a feeling not helped when people say dyslexia doesn’t exist.
More recently, though, I’ve started to reconsider what it means to be a dyslexic academic. I don’t see being dyslexic as wholly negative anymore. I no longer want to hide it or try to fit into a certain academic box that doesn’t quite fit my needs.
After all, being a dyslexic academic is something of an oxymoron. Academics (especially in the arts) are supposed to be wordsmiths. I was paralysed for nearly 2 years when one reviewer of an article I wrote questioned the intellectual validity because I had capitalised ‘c’ in church in the wrong places. The article was rejected & for me I put my pen down and stopped writing altogether. I researched, researched, researched, something I felt more comfortable doing and enjoyed more. Besides, I already felt a fraud and here was someone who I felt had seen right through me.
Of course, now I see the absurdity of my actions. This reviewer had clearly decided not to really engage with my submission. There was only a short paragraph explaining why it should not be published. I now feel sorry for any student who receives feedback from this person. It was neither constructive nor supportive.
But it does raise interesting questions about how the academy responds to learning disabilities and the problem of assuming that we all start off at the same starting block. If academics are asking themselves to reconsider mental health than we also need to reflect on learning disabilities and how as a sector we support colleagues. After all, I was part of a generation that was provided with ample support throughout my studies. Similarly I was told I could go anywhere regardless of my dyslexia. However, since becoming an ECR I have felt somewhat bewildered and unsure of what to do. How do I seek advice or guidance? Who is responsible for providing me with support i.e. student disability office, research office or my department? This is made all the harder when you’re on short term temporary contracts. In all the years I’ve been working in the sector no one has ever asked me what support or help I might need. You’re asked to list it on equality forms but I’m never sure where the information goes. Does it stay with HR? Are line managers notified?
Similarly being dyslexic isn’t just about being unable to spell or struggling to understand how certain linguistic rules work. It can mean finding it difficult to understand structures or being able to process complex information. For instance, I can’t read long, dense emails. Reading off the screen is impossible for me & structuring long pieces extremely difficult. When I was PhD student this wasn’t so hard as you had regular discussions with supervisors. Becoming an academic has meant understanding new notions of time. There’s no longer the time to think things through. Tiredness makes my dyslexic quirks worse which means that working in the evenings or weekends can sometimes be pointless.
Nonetheless my dyslexia makes me the academic I am. The last year I have developed new plans and new ways to think/ write up my research rather then work against it. I no longer write out conference papers but write complex spider diagrams. These form of the base of articles now. I’ve started hand writing articles. I plan to speak and record my ‘writing’. I now ask more people to read and comment on my work. Blogging has also been great for me. It’s encouraged me to write more regularly and with a tone that I feel more confident with. In turn I plan to extend this style to future academic writing.
Finally, I’ve decided to step out of the speed writing discourse. In many ways this has been the most liberating for me. As someone overwhelmed by the process of writing I can’t engage with this idea anymore. We need to recognise that writing speeds can’t be rushed for everyone and that there might be good reasons for this. Slow writing can be important for some academics like me. I would much rather be a snail academic than continue to feel like I’m failing.
I end this post with a plea and a thank you. It’s dyslexia awareness week this week. Please do read or check out their website. Finally, thanks to my other half who has always found the time to read, edit and help me unravel my writing.
6 thoughts on “Being a dyslexic academic”
It was great to read this (I’m another dyslexic academic and can really relate to your experiences). I feel very lucky to be dyslexic and know it gives me a unique perspective on my research, but on occasion people can be unthinkingly (or deliberately!) cruel.
I’d also love to have a better sense of who I’m meant to tell, and why. I often find support staff are very keen to help, but are understandably much more familiar with undergraduates, whose needs are different and whose coping strategies are often very different. I keep meaning to blog about my experiences and failing to do so, but it’s so good to read yours!
Fantastic piece! I am dyslexic bookseller (of academic books) and have been a dyslexic undergrad, a dyslexic secondary school English teacher, and a dyslexic masters student. As you say you’re never sure who to tell, how much to tell, what to ask for, or what others will do with the information. And thank God for proof-reading partners!
Thanks you so much for this article. Glad to hear I’m not alone in the struggle. I work in visual arts + architecture. Dyslexia is what makes me good at that. Learning to write about it, has its frustrations. Not the least that I simply need more time than others to do so.
Thanks for your comment! Solidarity with your writing journey. Like you I find that I wouldn’t be the historian I am if I didn’t have dyslexia.