At the age of 4, I was assessed for the local Grammar School.
“She shows outstanding potential at such a young age.”
But, as time went on, I did not reach my milestones.
“How could we be so wrong? Our selection methods never fail!”.
A conversation so often had with my poor mother, who’s natural intelligence is outstanding.
Despite being recognised for almost 150 years, it is only with the turn of the last century that dyslexia has become widely acknowledged. First documented by Adoph Kussmaul, a German Neurologist, in 1878 he noted that several of his patients were unable to read because they regularly used the words in the wrong order. The condition was later named by Rudolf Berlin as ‘dyslexia’ based on Ancient Greek language. Following this, the first case of developmental dyslexia was reported by Pringle-Morgan in the British Medical Journal on 7 November 1896 (1). By early 1970s, several organisations dedicated to dyslexia were founded, including the British Dyslexia Association. The next 40 years that followed were bleak and with so many striving for understanding, it was granted recognition by the Government and protection for people with dyslexia was given under the legislation in the Equality Act 2010 (2).
To understand what my mother and myself battled through, I must take you back 20 years, before the 2010 Equality Act. When learning difficulties such as dyslexia were somewhat unspoken of, with the few educational psychologists personally pushing for more cases to be recognised within schools. I was the only girl struggling with her academics in the 100-pupil year group. I am not fitting the desired norm. There must be something ‘wrong with me’.
After my dyslexia diagnosis at age 6, it felt like nothing changed for me. However, little did I know how greatly my school’s attitudes changed. I was handed a book titled ‘Toe by Toe’, originally published in 1993, ‘to teach dyslexic children to read polysyllabic words through syllable diversion’(3). As if the cure to my ailment was to complete two pages a night in six months Of course, this resulted in tantrums, low self-esteem and me using made up words from the book in everyday conversation. It was clear I was not going to fit the desired ‘norm’ and I was asked to leave my local Grammar school.
My next school took a different approach. My teachers would not be informed of my diagnosis and one-to-one sessions would be kept regular and private. Although a little unorthodox, I was relieved not to have my diagnosis stamped on my forehead. The bullying stopped from my classmates, and I was free to enjoy school. Of course, I would still fake read books and when asked to ‘highlight the important bits’, my whole page would turn a florescent yellow. Research suggests that coloured overlays help to reduce the floating letters and the common occurrence of reading one line three or four times over (4), (5) - both symptoms I thought everyone experienced. My spelling and reading improved, as I learnt to recognise the words by their shape not the letters within them. The discrimination I had faced in my previous school ended and I flourished because of this. I finished four years later, 3rd in the year and started the Secondary School with a proud badge of the ‘Dyslexic who succeeded’.
Secondary school was the time when (most) people develop their personality. The hormones are in balance, you begin to know your own mind and interests. I had negotiated my dyslexia and like an old friend we had come to an arrangement. Yellow was a calming colour. Black text on white paper was not ideal, but white text on black paper was my enemy. To learn, I had to handwrite all my notes on white paper in blue pen with colour co-ordinated sections and reinforce with example questions. When the words floated, it was time to stop. I worked with my diagnosis. I worked hard.
Like with everyone at secondary school age, the questions buzzed around about the future and our career paths. My aunt would remind me of my childhood, where we would always play Doctors and Nurses. I was the Doctor and my male cousins were the nurses (breaking sexism since day one). My curiosity about the human body started to frustrate my mother, due to the endless number of books she had to buy for me on the subject. So, when the question was asked to me, my natural answer – “I want to be a Doctor.”
The response from my teacher - “Oh don’t be silly, you are dyslexic, you cannot be a Doctor.”
Ouch. Now for my biggest regret – naivety – I listened to them.
Right, I will be in the police force, or acting, or accountancy (varied I know).
But none of those fit me. I was lost, confused, and disheartened.
Until I stopped listening. I knew I wanted to be a Doctor, so why not give it a try? I took a gap year, explored the world, and shaped my application. One year on, I told that teacher I had received four offers to medical school.
So why am I writing this?
To tell you not to let life or a diagnosis stop you. I have carried my diagnosis throughout my life. Always describing dyslexia by telling the person:
‘Imagine the brain as a giant combination of plug switches. In everyone else’s mind the plugs are connected correctly with no wires crossing. But for me - some of the plugs have switched and subsequently the cables are muddled. This muddling makes it harder for me to process information - read and write. I sometimes have floating letters and tend to be rubbish at the phonetic alphabet.’
Finally concluding with – ‘dyslexia doesn’t mean stupid’.
Just to break those preconceived stereotypes. As a medical student, I can now inform you that dyslexia is due to a reduction in gray matter within the parietal lobes (6). Recently, dyslexia has been rebranded to a ‘learning difficulty’ not a learning disability, with the distinction being an intact IQ (7).
I am now one of the 1.4% of medical students with dyslexia as recorded by the BMA (8). Personally, I think this prevalence is much too low. The NHS estimates that 1 in every 10 people within the UK have some degree of dyslexia (9), therefore, surely there are more of us creative and mad enough to become doctors?!
My Top Personal Tips for having Dyslexia in Medical School:
Take time to understand your learning style and coping mechanism
Work-life balance is extra important. With dyslexia we will burnout faster than others around us so make sure you build in breaks to your day.
Find your stress outlet.
When others around you grasp the concept quicker than you, it is important to have an outlet for annoyance. It is nobody’s fault, just life!
Help your friends to understand your dyslexia
Without support, medical school is hard enough.
Tell your medical school early
It is illegal for them to discriminate against your dyslexia so you should not worry about the consequences of them knowing.
Apply for DSA
Get all the support possible, you will end up using it more than you think!
Some days are easier than others. Keep going ☺
S Poppy Barnes
Hull York Medic
NMRA Welfare Lead
1. History of Dyslexia | Dyslexia Awareness [Internet]. [cited 2022 Mar 25]. Available from: http://www.dyslexia-aware.com/dawn/history-of-dyslexia
2. A Brief History of Dyslexia [Internet]. [cited 2022 Mar 25]. Available from: https://dyslexiahistory.web.ox.ac.uk/brief-history-dyslexia
3. Toe by Toe: Highly Structured Multi-Sensory Reading Manual for Teachers and Parents [Internet]. The Dyslexia Shop Ltd. [cited 2022 Mar 25]. Available from: https://www.thedyslexiashop.co.uk/toe-by-toe-highly-structured-multi-sensory-reading-manual-for-teachers-and-parents.html
4. Tinted and coloured filters for visual discomfort [Internet]. [cited 2022 Mar 25]. Available from: https://www.aop.org.uk/advice-and-support/for-patients/tinted-and-coloured-filters-for-visual-discomfort
5. Dyslexia [Internet]. Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities. 2016 [cited 2022 Mar 21]. Available from: https://www.learningdisabilities.org.uk/learning-disabilities/a-to-z/d/dyslexia
6. Resource TD. Dyslexia and the Brain - The Dyslexia Resource [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2022 Mar 21]. Available from: https://dyslexiaresource.org/dyslexia-and-the-brain/
7. NIH-funded study finds dyslexia not tied to IQ [Internet]. National Institutes of Health (NIH). 2015 [cited 2022 Apr 11]. Available from: https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-funded-study-finds-dyslexia-not-tied-iq
8. Shaw SCK, Anderson JL. Twelve tips for teaching medical students with dyslexia. Med Teach. 2017 Jul;39(7):686–90.
9. Dyslexia [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2018 [cited 2022 Mar 21]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/dyslexia/