Higher Education: Dyslexia needn't mean no degree: Fran Abrams looks at the support universities offer those with reading and writing problems

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The Independent Online
At 14, John Weldon all but gave up on education. Depressed by his inability to cope at school, he began playing truant, then dropped out altogether. His last 18 months in compulsory education were spent at home with a tutor.

Now aged 30, he is in the final year of a four-year BSc honours course in social sciences at the University of North London. He hopes to take an MA and possibly pursue an academic career.

The turning point for Mr Weldon came five years ago when he was diagnosed as dyslexic. Since then he has gained the confidence to improve his writing and spelling.

Dyslexia is not usually a problem associated with university students, but at least 1 per cent, or about 7,400 students, are believed to be sufferers. Wider access to adult literacy schemes and universities has brought an increasing number of dyslexics into higher education in the past few years.

The British Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as a specific difficulty in reading, spelling or writing. It may be accompanied by problems with numberwork, short- term memory, visual perception and motor skills, and is more easily detected in people with average or above average intelligence.

Because the problem is more widely recognised than it was 10 years ago, sufferers have a greater chance of receiving help at school, so the number of dyslexic university entrants should decrease in future. Higher education institutions are also taking the problem more seriously. Of the 38 institutions which earlier this year shared grants of pounds 3.5m from the Higher Education Funding Council for England aimed at widening access, nine plan to improve support for dyslexic students.

The Adult Dyslexia Organisation, launched two years ago, is setting up a network for dyslexic students and also hopes to raise enough money to produce a guidance pack. Donald Schloss, the organisation's chairman, said many dyslexic students felt isolated: 'Recently we had four dyslexic students on the same course, and they didn't even know it until the end of their final exams when they went out for a drink together and they were all saying, 'Thank God that's over'. They could have been there to help and support each other throughout the course.'

Some institutions already have a support network for dyslexics. The University of North London has been awarded pounds 88,000 by the higher education funding council to recruit and train mentors who offer practical and moral support.

Ellen Morgan, co-ordinator of dyslexia support services at the university, says that between 360 and 400 of the 11,000 students there are dyslexic. Four out of 10 North London students are mature, and because dyslexics often underachieve at school, a high proportion go to university late.

'These are people who have failed in education in the past because they never had the benefit of any special tuition. They are coming back into the system because they are intelligent and able people, but their problems resurface when they come back into the academic environment,' she says.

Mr Weldon says he has benefited from the university's support. As well as having a sympathetic personal tutor, he has also been helped by the unit run by Ms Morgan. 'The academic support has been invaluable, but it isn't just that. The emotional support of the unit, and meeting other dyslexic students, is also important,' he says.

Mr Weldon's local authority has awarded him grants for a personal computer with a spell-checker, a tape recorder and tapes on to which he dictates essays and exam papers.

Others are less fortunate. Brian Lock, 33, a sociology student at the University of Greenwich, has received no help at all from the same local authority, the London borough of Wandsworth. He left school at 16 with a handful of CSE certificates and was diagnosed as dyslexic a month after he started at the university, which accepted him on the strength of an interview. He applied to the borough for an equipment grant, but after a six-month wait was turned down. The only concession he receives is an extra 10 minutes per hour in exams.

'I am managing to cope with the course, but I am not getting the technical backup I need. It takes me nine hours to word-process a 1,500- word essay which another student could do in two. I am in my second year now and I am terrified: how far can I go without flunking?'

Although local authorities can claim back the money they spend on disabled students allowances from the Department for Education, many are reluctant to give special grants to dyslexics, according to David Laycock, head of the Computer Centre for People with Disabilities, based at the University of Westminster.

Mr Laycock estimates that a dyslexic might need pounds 2,500 for a computer with a facility that can correct phonetically spelt words, pounds 250 for a tape recorder and cassettes, and about pounds 400 a term for books and a typist. Some authorities insist that applicants take a test, costing up to pounds 180, to prove the extent of their disability.

'The alarming growth in the number of dyslexic students coming through the system in the past two to three years is giving a number of organisations a bad case of nerves. Students are still not getting the support their assessments suggest they are entitled to,' he says.

The Adult Dyslexia Organisation, 336 Brixton Road, London SW9 7AA (helpline (Photograph omitted)

071-924 9559).