January 2020 Newsletter

On the boundaries of learning

Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or self-confidence, American poet Robert Frost had once famously quipped. For 23-year-old photojournalist Ala Buisir, this remark makes sense at a literal level.

Ala, like one in every 10 people in the world, suffers from dyslexia – a reading disorder that affects one’s ability to spell, identify, and write words at normal speed. Her whole higher education career has hinged on the tumultuous balance between finishing readings and writing essays, with the help of teachers and software – each compensating for shortcomings in the other.

Over a phone interview last week – while waiting for her Luas to get to YouTube’s Dublin office where she works – Ala shared some of her moving experiences with me. Smart, outspoken, and naturally helpful, Ala narrated how there are fundamental flaws in our approach to dyslexia in Irish higher education.

“What most people don’t realise is that dyslexia comes in many forms and levels. Each student has specific needs in their learning environment that are unique” she said. “When authorities generalise the symptoms of dyslexia and make standard estimations of its intensity, affected students lose out on making the most out of college.”

After a relatively supportive experience in high school, Ala joined a Post-Leaving Certificate course in Dublin. Designed as further education for school students interested in vocational or technological training, the PLC course was Ala’s first encounter with the intense curricular demands of higher education.

“In school, I’d often write essays by watching documentaries rather than reading books. Often, that would suffice since my essays needn’t have been written in a particularly academic style” she said. “But everything changed when I joined college. Classes were more intensive, essays were longer, and readings were overwhelming.”

“My distinctions and one merit from the Leaving Certs were now turning into deadline extension requests and plummeting grades. And my college had no provisions for support.”

Ala paid for a monthly subscription to Grammarly – a grammar and punctuation correction software that proof-reads texts and helps correct mistakes – in order to keep up with her assignments. While this helped with writing, albeit at much slower speeds, reading was an acute challenge. The only reading-aid software available at the time, Golden Page, was 500 euros for an annual subscription – far beyond the college freshmen’s budget.

For Ala, the first time she received help was when she joined Dublin Institute of Technology’s BA Photography course. The disability officer provided her with printing credit for A3 size paper with bigger writing to make reading easier.

“I chose photography as my niche in journalism because I have a passion for visuals and an aversion for text. Knowing my disability, I tried using my interest in photography as an advantage in a field that is heavily text-dependent” she said.

“But studying photography was far from peaceful. Readings kept getting increasingly difficult. My final year thesis was 15000 words – and this is where I reached my tipping point.”

In her final year, succumbing to academic pressure and lack of support, Ala slipped into depression and anxiety. Having missed her thesis deadline, she decided to defer her degree for a year.

“People kept saying things like ‘your dyslexia will get better with time’ and ‘you’ll learn how to read eventually, don’t worry’. No one realised that it was permanent and that change in the way things were, were not supposed to come from my end” she said.

“My anxiety led to panic attacks that stem from a fear of deadlines. My depression is directly linked to lack of support and understanding for my dyslexia.”

Not one to back down at the face of adversity, Ala decided to use the year to find new and innovative technologies that may help her read and write more efficiently. After multiple stints with inadequate apps and software, she finally settled down on one – NaturalReader.

NaturalReader is a text-to-speech app that reads webpages, documents, and eBooks aloud in a natural-sounding voice. Designed for users with dyslexia, the discovery of the mobile app was music to her ears.

Currently doing her MA in Journalism at Dublin City University, Ala has found relative peace with the way she works on her assignments. Using NaturalReader for reading and Grammarly – provided by DCU – for writing, Ala says she now finds it easier to cope but there’s still room for improvement.

“The problem with most apps is that it is difficult to recognize your own mistakes. You have to trust the software, and assume it is right when in doubt” she said. “The reading apps are difficult to navigate when you want to find specific portions of notes or readings.”

When asked about her view on the most important factor that helps dyslexic students learn, Ala returned to her school days and cited individual attention as key to her learning.

“My dyslexia never felt like an impediment in school. Despite having readings and essays even back then, my one to one sessions with teachers was crucial to my formative learning experiences” she said.

“Software is great. Every institution must make ample provisions for dyslexic students to have what they need without having to pay for them themselves.”

But the most important factor was not surprising.

“But for me, personally, having an human environment that is aware of my special needs, and educators who show concern and tell me they understand how difficult it must be to be in my place – that is what matters most to me” she said.

“I just want people to know that college is a hard and challenging time for most students, and an environment that does not support the specific needs of students with different abilities – at any level – is detrimental for mental health.”

Ending the conversation on a thankful note to her parents – who have funded most of the tools she uses to cope with dyslexia – Ala warned that there are many dyslexic students she knows who can’t afford the same privileges.

Reading this article itself won’t be easy for Ala, but with the right amount of awareness and initiatives from the third level sector, interviews such as this one can be rendered irrelevant – for the better.

Written by Vish Gain (@VishGain)

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