Hélène Cohen from Please Miss is a former SENCO who now trains teachers and advises schools on their SEND provision. She also tutors for the NASCO and iSENCO Masters awards and the NPQ senior and middle leadership qualifications. Here, she discusses with Education for Everybody her own personal experience of dyslexia…
At 54 years of age I was hardly expecting to ever look for a formal assessment for dyslexia. Why would I? Nevertheless, as I neared completion of my doctoral thesis, my supervisor started to persuade me to go for it. Why? What purpose could it serve? I’d muddled through the reading and re-reading that was required for each stage; I’d written, read, re-read, re-written every assignment and every aspect of my thesis, using my own time to avoid the need for any extra help; I’d made good use of voice recognition software on those occasions when every typed word was underlined with that helpful squiggly red line. So why now? Well it was for the viva.
The viva? How could a diagnosis of dyslexia be significant for the viva? This has been an unusual experience for me. I’m an experienced teacher and SENCO. I therefore understand the needs of those with dyslexia and the sort of accommodations that help level the playing field. However, when about me all of that disappeared – fast. I was placed in the position where I was the one requiring support and couldn’t see it. Were I supporting someone else I would have known the strategies immediately.
My supervisor is exceptional. As one with a recent disability, she had been thrown into the world of support strategies and had needed to navigate issues far more complex and life-impacting than my own. She has a resilience to which I can relate and could see where my difficulties were. The written word had, as I said earlier, been managed with time, patience and my supervisor’s quirky humour, but the viva was different. There are several aspects of dyslexia that would affect this – assuming I am, as opposed to being found to be the ‘dumbbell and doughnut’ of my childhood:
• Word retrieval. Fine as a type, since I can take the time to find the words needed; however, in viva I need to sound competent and knowledgeable about my own research and will appear less so if I can’t find the words to express myself. Words frequently float just beyond my brain. They’re around my head where I should be able to just reach out and grab them; yet they’re so often elusive, leaving me frustrated, feeling stupid. It’s hard to explain, but I do know exactly what I want to communicate; I can visualise the concept; I close my eyes, wriggle my fingers as though I could snatch the words from the air around me – but they’re gone.
• Processing and memory. Just as I’m about to say something, it’s disappeared – floating again just outside my reach, like those elusive words. I may be 54, but this is not yet dementia. It has ever been thus. As a child, sitting at the dinner table surrounded by wonderful conversation and knowing that I had something to contribute the lull so often came when the thought had run away. I would retrieve it and sometimes even voice it, however too often the conversation had moved so far that as I spoke it sounded irrelevant – I was back to being the endearing dumbbell. Or else I spoke in time, but that delightful intruder – Mrs Malaprop – would arrive and I would talk of par carks, specific oceans and basketti, the cute little doughnut that I was. In a viva I can hardly afford to lose my thoughts and sound ignorant of my own research.
• Pressure - an extension of the above. If under pressure, either because I’m being rushed or someone speaks with an impatient tone, I go to pieces. Always have. The words run away so fast, the thoughts themselves escaping. As the frustration builds, especially when I really need to say my piece, tears become the intruders, making me more frustrated - feeling ever more stupid. Worse still, I feel like a silly little girl. I’m good at SENDCOing, I’m good at teaching, I’m good at helping others and finding strategies to support them through life, I’m also truly resilient – so where are these tears coming from? Why now? Why when I have something so important to say am I left feeling utterly pathetic and out of control? This fortunately doesn’t happen in my professional capacity. It’s almost as though I’m playing a part then. I have confidence in my professional abilities and am in control. A viva is so much more personal, the culmination of 5 years’ hard work and a chance to prove to myself that maybe I’m not stupid. Please don’t let the tears invade during the viva. They certainly did in my First Review. Absolute invasion. I was a sobbing, gibbering wreck. Yet I gained so much from the experience of abject failure – oh yes I failed! The chair was a wonderful lady who guided me to a much better path and I thanked her for her support while apologising for my tears.
• Finally comes reading. Reading in the viva? I queried. Well I will need to find where I have written various bits as I am quizzed about them. Reading is a real issue for me. I can decode words or I can understand them – doing both simultaneously and at speed is another issue entirely. I know my data. I can tell you who said what and how they said it – laughing, crying with anger – it’s all there in my head. But finding it in the text of my thesis is another matter. I could be shuffling pages for an age. The use of a laptop to locate key parts of my research would support this – something I would definitely have considered for someone else but needed my supervisor to explain to me. Likewise I will need the space to spread out any notes I bring in– I do like to spread out! Up until my thesis was submitted my entire study was covered with papers, books, notes and quotes – all in the appropriate piles, colour coded and perfectly at hand. This is not how it would have appeared to anyone else entering my space. To them it would have seemed a total mess, utterly cluttered – exactly like my office at work. I sometimes think, when I look at my spaces, that my mind must be the same – all cluttered with so much stuff, making sense only to me.
So here I am, awaiting an assessment for dyslexia. I’m scared, ridiculously scared. I’ve put this off ever since I was told that I was showing all the signs of having dyslexia, just in case I don’t have it and I’m just the dumbbell and doughnut I’ve always considered myself to be. Distinction at Masters level didn’t convince me that I’m not stupid; completing a doctoral thesis hasn’t either. Oh yes, I feel a huge sense of achievement for having written so much and finally submitted it, but I also feel a total fraud, as though I shouldn’t be able to complete something at that level. They’re going to find me out. That’s the fear of the assessment – what if they find me out to be the fool after all?