Dyslexia and College

dyslexia word cloud

The fact that you, either the parent of a dyslexic or are a person with dyslexia, are planning on college, you deserve a big congratulations! You have overcome tremendous challenges to get to this place in your life. You are AWESOME!

I was reminded of what an accomplishment it is for someone who has dyslexia while listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. In this book, Gladwell discusses the impact of dyslexia as a ‘desirable difficulty’. That in that learning to overcome the challenges of dyslexia, you are prepared to overcome other challenges.

As a fellow dyslexic (I wasn’t diagnosed until I was taking a master’s class in special education), as well as the husband and father of those who have dyslexia, I understand your struggles and offer some advice on how to best succeed in college.

A (Brief) Definition of Dyslexia
First, a very brief definition of dyslexia:
Dyslexia is a general term used for disorders where a person has difficulty processing information. Most commonly it is used to refer to those who have difficulty reading or interpreting words. Additional diagnoses might include dysgraphia – difficulty writing, especially by hand and dyscalculia – difficulty with numbers.

The problem of dyslexia was first diagnosed in the late 1800s. Wide support for people who have dyslexia has only begun to be offered in the last few decades.

Generally, people who have dyslexia have a normal to high IQ. Dyslexia is not associated with vision or eye-sight problems. It tends to run in families. If a dyslexic can learn to compensate for their learning disability, they can achieve great things.

A Full Spectrum
Dyslexia shows up in a full spectrum. You might have mild symptoms or very severe. It can also vary due to many factors including environmental, stress, health, or just because it is a Tuesday.

A dyslexic will have good days and bad days. There are days when it seems like every other word that I type has a red squiggly line under it. Other days I can write 1000’s of words without difficulty.

Picking The Right College
One of the most important decisions you can make is finding a college or university that will support your learning disability. Generally, this is going to be found in smaller universities over large universities.

While all universities are federally required in the United States to provide accommodations for learning disabilities, it is entirely dependent on the quality of staff who provide support. When you are visiting colleges, be sure to schedule a time to visit with those who are responsible for providing support services. If they do not have time to meet with you, that is very telling of the type of support you will receive.

Hopefully, you have been diagnosed and have the paperwork to show that you have a learning disability. If you have not been officially diagnosed, you need to do so as soon as possible. Most K12 school districts provide this service for free if you are under 18 in the United States.

You cannot receive federally mandated assistance if you have not been diagnosed. Some people are hesitant about being diagnosed because they do not want themselves or their children to be labeled.
Don’t be. Becoming diagnosed does not impair your ability to become employed or impact your admittance to a college. Employers are not allowed to ask if you have dyslexia prior to hiring (but be honest about your skills; you shouldn’t seek a career as a proofreader).

Getting diagnosed and the paperwork associated with the testing helps to ensure that the college or university provide services so that you a better chance of succeeding.

Becoming diagnosed is a one-time event. Once you are diagnosed, the paperwork is good for your K12 and college career, even through your masters and doctorate work.

Fonts & Color Matter
Some who have dyslexia find that changing to a different font has an impact, making it easier to read and comprehend what they are reading. Some also find that changing the background color or font color also helps with comprehension.
There are even a few fonts available for download specifically designed for people with dyslexia. While the research is mixed on how much such fonts help a person with dyslexia, if it helps you, use it!!!

For best results, get rid of the paper version of your textbooks and use a device like Amazon’s Kindle Fire or Apple’s iPad. This will allow you more control over the font and colors. D

Audio Books
Many people who are dyslexic have become great listeners, and learn better by listening to an audio version of the book. I am a big fan of Audible and Libby, which makes audiobooks available through your local library, for my audiobooks.

You also qualify for books through RFB&D (Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic). RFB&D can be accessed via the www.learningally.org website

If you haven’t subscribed to Grammarly, DO! While the spell check and grammar functions of Microsoft Word and Google Docs do a fair job, Grammarly takes it to the next level. I have found Grammarly to regularly catch errors that the others missed. Recently Grammarly added a function to provide feedback on the tone of your writing. This is a resource that can be very useful to make sure the papers, emails, and articles that you are writing have the correct tone. According to Grammarly, this paragraph is ‘informative’ in tone; exactly what I was hoping for!

Digital Readers
If you a Kindle Fire or Apple iPad, then you have a digital reader. Both provide reading services through their accessibility options.

In my experience, it can be a pain to get textbooks from services in a timely manner that are audio. Using Siri or Alexa helps you to get around that problem. Just purchase or rent the digital version of your textbook, turn on speech in the accessibility area of your device, and you’re ready to have your textbook (or regular book) read to you.

Dealing With Professors
Unlike K12 schools where most states require that teachers know how to provide accommodations for learning disabilities, college and university professors usually have no background or training in working with students that have learning disabilities.

Even when you find a college that provides good support, there will be the occasional (or not so occasional) professor that doesn’t consider students receiving accommodations as ‘fair’. Many simply do not understand why you need accommodations for their class. Some might even imply that using your accommodations is cheating.

It is important that you network with other students who have learning disabilities and use the learning services to reduce the number of professors who take issue with accommodations. Unfortunately, there will be that occasional class that only one professor teaches and you will be stuck with them. Be sure to provide your accommodation requirements to them as early as possible (these will be provided by the learning services support department).

In college, the responsibility to ensure that you file the right paperwork and provide notice to the professor and testing services is completely on you. Make sure to use calendars, set notices with your smartphone, or any other method at your disposal to make sure everything is filed in a timely manner.

Personal Story:
As I mentioned earlier, I was not diagnosed with dyslexia until I was taking a class at the masters level in special education. As I was reading through the symptoms, I realized that I, my wife, and my young child all had dyslexia.

In elementary school, I was one of the kids that never earned higher than a ‘C’ on spelling tests. I would get a perfect score on the definitions, but if the spelling was part of the grade, I knew my score would be poor.

I was fortunate that in high school personal computers were just becoming available and they included spell check! Suddenly college became an option due to this technological wonder. I quickly learned to program and became my school’s technology wizard.

Prior to learning that I had dyslexia, I just assumed that I had to work harder and that it would always take me longer to complete assignments and readings. Fortunately, that wasn’t an issue with technology where spending long hours of programming was expected.
When I went to college, I quickly learned that if I took over 12 hours (4 classes) in a semester, I wouldn’t do well. Taking fewer classes was usually necessary. I also learned to avoid courses (and majors) that were focused on correct spelling. While I could listen and learn the material, spelling continues to this day to be a struggle.

I was very fortunate that my master’s advisor was a former special education teacher. She was able to provide me with additional resources and accommodations which made it possible to complete my masters on schedule. She also became my dissertation advisor for my doctorate degree, something that I appreciate to this day (thank you Barb!).

Let me close with a word of encouragement. While dyslexia may limit your choices, it does not limit what you can accomplish. Dealing with dyslexia on a day-to-day basis has given you a skill set that can help you to accomplish great things.

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