Studying at Birkbeck with dyslexia and dyspraxia

Nazmeen Akhtar

This article was contributed by Nazmeen Akhtar, a student in the final year of Birkbeck’s BSc Social Sciences.

I hated school. I was in all the bottom sets, and struggled to understand what I was being taught. As a result I never felt engaged with my education, and when I left school at age 16 I felt that it was one of the happiest days of my life.

I didn’t know it then, but the reason that I had such difficulty with my studies was that I had undiagnosed dyslexia and dyspraxia.

After school I worked in call centres and shops. At work I also found that I struggled with certain tasks – particularly structuring my work and organising things. I ended up in an endless cycle of low-paid jobs, none of which were fulfilling me. I was fed up.

A discussion with a recruitment consultant made me realise that if I wanted to get a job that I was interested in, I would need a degree. So ten years after I had left school, I began to consider the possibility of returning to education.

Despite my previous negative experiences, once I’d decided to apply for university I just got on and did it. The nerves didn’t really kick in until I had to sit down and write my first assignment. By then I’d been for testing with the Birkbeck disability office and had received my diagnoses of dyslexia and dyspraxia.

My biggest difficulty was organising information and structuring my responses to assignment questions. However, through the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) I received a laptop so that I could work at home, in my own time. That was really important to me, as I found it very difficult to work in the library, with the distraction of having other people around. By far the most important part of the support package I received was one-to-one sessions with my support tutor. As soon as I get the handbook for a new module she sits with me and helps me plan everything – time management, structure, reading. With her help I can manage all the other elements of the course, which means that when it comes to writing the assignment I am a lot less anxious. Fellow Birkbeck student Graeme Wilkinson agrees that the support of a tutor is key. He said:  “I saw a tutor once a week and she really helped me structure my essays and make the most of my new software. My marks went up immediately, and I started getting Firsts for my pieces of coursework.”

Receiving my diagnoses was very emotional. Everything fell into place in terms of why I’d struggled so much at school, and I finally could see that those problems hadn’t been my fault. I’m now less than a year away from graduation and am predicted to receive a 2:1 or first-class honours degree. It feels amazing to be in this position and my confidence has soared as a result. The disability support at Birkbeck has been outstanding and the disability support services I have received through DSA have enabled me to overcome any barriers.

I am currently applying for an internship with an MP for next year. The internship involves one day per week studying leadership. I never would have applied for a job that involved studying before I began my degree but this is a result of being much more confident now in my ability to learn and to achieve.

I can say with absolute confidence that finding out the reality about my complex study needs and being supported through the barriers they caused was the only thing which was going to help me break out of the cycle I was in. The reality of studying with complex needs is that it is not easy – but it is achievable and the end result is most definitely worth pursuing.

National Dyslexia Awareness Week runs from 3 – 9 November 2014. 

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