Overcoming learning hurdles

For those with dyslexia, an MBA was once a challenge too far. Not any more, says Mark Piesing
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The Independent Online

As far as business schools are concerned, dyslexics come from the wrong side of the tracks. Traditionally, applicants for the top MBA courses have been academic high achievers, able to prove their number crunching and writing skills. Dyslexics who succeed, such as Sir Richard Branson, tend to come from the world of entrepreneurs and small business. Many leave school without a list of qualifications and find success later on. So does this mean that an MBA is out of bounds for dyslexic students?

As far as business schools are concerned, dyslexics come from the wrong side of the tracks. Traditionally, applicants for the top MBA courses have been academic high achievers, able to prove their number crunching and writing skills. Dyslexics who succeed, such as Sir Richard Branson, tend to come from the world of entrepreneurs and small business. Many leave school without a list of qualifications and find success later on. So does this mean that an MBA is out of bounds for dyslexic students?

Not according to Ranganath Bobba, business consultant and co-founder of comedy magazine Cracking. His own difficulties with dyslexia meant he left school at 16, after being told he "couldn't even do GCSEs", and feeling that his life was over. Yet he has just completed his MBA at City University's Cass Business School. "I was determined not to let them win. So I worked my way up to degree level after completing an HND. In the end, I applied for an MBA, even though I was worried about the maths, because I wanted a completely different set of skills. It's the best decision I have ever made."

According to the British Dyslexia Association (BDA), dyslexia affects an individual's ability to master skills such as reading, spelling and writing, even though many compensate for this with outstanding creative or oral skills. So it's not surprising that the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), used by many business schools to assess MBA applicants, can act as a no-entry sign for dyslexics. Testing them on the very areas that they struggled with at school rather than on the soft interpersonal skills in which they are strong, was always going to be a barrier for many.

Now, though, there are signs that business schools are moving the goalposts for students who demonstrate ability yet find it impossible to get a high enough GMAT score. Not all schools insist on a test result, and some, like Cranfield School of Management, run pre-MBA courses designed to boost confidence and skill levels among candidates with a weakness in one area.

Bobba received a relatively low GMAT score of 560. Yet through the strength of his application and the force of his personality he was offered a place at Cass. "They were impressed by my range of experience in banking and IT, as well as by my enthusiasm."

Henley Management College, which attracts students in their mid thirties, is moving away from using tests such as GMAT to open up MBAs to more experienced and successful managers who don't fit the standard profile. Professor Ian Turner, director of MBA programmes, feels that tests are often too narrow and says Henley wants to encourage diversity.

Getting onto an MBA course is one thing, but the demanding nature of the work can be a barrier too far for talented students with learning problems like dyslexia. The strategies used to survive in school or business can start to unravel in the face of the demands of the course. For example, the sheer volume of reading and the complexity of the maths can be overwhelming.

Yet from case study-based learning through to the working on projects for real businesses, many MBAs are changing to suit the needs of a wider range of learners. Teaching methods are increasingly placing a value on an individual's own business experience. At the Cass Business School, Bobba says the blend of interactivity, practical application and theory matched the areas where he as a dyslexic was strongest.

Business schools are also doing more to work with dyslexic students, helping them to adapt their skills to the challenges of the MBA course. Yvonne Tyler recently graduated from Lancaster University Management School. "The staff gave me consistent help and support," she says. "By using simple techniques like changing the colour of power point slides so I could read them more easily they helped me overcome the issues associated with dyslexia and academia."

The change in atmosphere from compulsory education to postgraduate work also seems to benefit dyslexics like Yvonne. "I was already a successful manager so my life didn't depend on the course," she says. "I wasn't as hung up about getting help from the staff and support from other students."

No matter how successful they are, many dyslexics may not consider an MBA because they believe they will not succeed in a formal education system. Recent research carried out by Dr Julie Logan of the Cass Business School revealed that entrepreneurs are five times more likely to suffer from dyslexia than the average manager. According to Dr Logan, 70 per cent of dyslexic entrepreneurs do not succeed at school and leave with very low self esteem, yet in increasing numbers they are turning to postgraduate courses to consolidate their knowledge, and succeed where they once struggled. "Many dyslexics do go back to study and are very successful," she says. "It is almost as though once they become successful in other areas they feel the need to go back and tackle this hurdle."

So the myth that MBAs are only for number crunching high flyers with a brilliant academic CV may no longer be valid. The willingness of schools to accommodate the needs of dyslexics and other non-traditional learners has been helped by increased competition for talented entrepreneurial students and by legislation such as the Disability Act which includes dyslexia as a disability.

The drive that many dyslexics possess make them an increasingly recognised asset for the business community as a whole and business schools specifically. As Bobba says, "This is a disability that gives you more. You've got to work a hundred times harder but you feel a hundred times better when you succeed."

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