Greg - A Story About Dyslexia and Education


IDEAS ON

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1 in 10 UK people are dyslexic

Greg Greenwood is the designer of Ideas On Info’s new logo and branding, which we’re really pleased with and which has been the culmination of several months of steady work. However, while working on the project, part of his background caught my attention. You see, both Greg and I are dyslexic and it has had a very interesting effect on our life paths.

Over the past decade that I’ve known Greg he seems to have gone from strength to strength and he is now well on his way to going to Central St Martins - University of the Arts after passing his college years with flying colours, (achieving A* in three highly intensive academic arts subjects: Graphic Design, 3D Design and Photography.) He’s changed a lot over the years and dyslexia played a major part in that. Particularly as it is very responsible for setting him on the path towards design; the area in which he is now seeking a career.

I find this particularly interesting because I have gone through the dyslexia screening process myself and been found to have a slow processing, reading and writing speed, all of which are symptomatic of dyslexia, but none of which majorly effect my every-day. If anything, I have found that they make me more methodical. However, for Greg who has “very, very heavy” dyslexia the story was quite different:

So I thought I was dumb. I thought I was really, really dumb. I never thought I was clever at all, not even slightly, and it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t clever, or that I didn’t think I was clever, I just never thought about it. And then obviously you go to secondary school and you start to get put in the lower levels because you don’t do as well in exams

For Greg “understanding the content was easy”, but it was when it came to written tests that things became difficult.

Due to dyslexia hindrances, in actual exams, I failed.

So because I was thinking so much about passing English [and] learning all these different things, I wasn’t thinking about design or anything along those lines, I was just thinking about how to spell things.

It’s a story that is common to people with dyslexia. Traditional education, all too frequently seems to educate in a particular style. One that is not suited to dyslexic people. Often this is simply to do with the way they explain things, but just as often it is that the very things the education system deems as important are not the things that dyslexic people are naturally good at. This might be reading, writing, spelling, writing speed, ordering thoughts for essays, processing information or working under stress in an exam-style time limit. All of which are essential parts of most subjects students are taught and how they are assessed, but only because they are the mediums of the currant main stream teaching style. It’s not so much that dyslexic people shouldn’t be taught these things. It’s just that by putting so much emphasis on them, dyslexic people are not exposed to, and allowed to explore the things they are good at. So they get put down and crushed by an unyielding system that categorises them as low achievers and the person ends up thinking that they are not good enough, when really their abilities just aren’t being nurtured. We’ll address this point properly in a minute.

An analogy Greg used was that of a computer program. The idea being that (in education particularly) we are all being made to ‘run’ on a generalised type of code specific for a certain type of person. Dyslexia is simply a person running “a different program” but being made to use the same code. Extending the analogy further, it is a bit like how a PC computers run Windows software, whereas Mac computers run OS software, but neither of them will run each other’s software. A majority of users might use one type, say Macs, but neither is necessarily better than the other. They are just different.

When it comes to dyslexia testing, a person is often assessed in four areas. These are: ‘Verbal Comprehension’, ‘Perceptual Reasoning’, ‘Working Memory’, and ‘Processing Speed’. (Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale – Fourth Edition (WAIS IV UK).) To understand the advantages and disadvantages of dyslexia and how to interpret the results from an assessment like this, I will pass on an example that I was given during my own screening test. Imagine if you were to plot people’s marks across those four areas (indices) on a graph and then connect the points with lines like a big dot-to-dot. Generally, most people get a straightish horizontal line going across the graph within normal margins (measured in percentiles). However, for Dyslexic people the line looks more like the horizon of the Alps. I.e. it goes up and down a lot showing that, in some areas, they are far weaker in their ability than most people, but in others, they can be far superior.

Going back to Greg, a year before his end of school exams he did work experience with two architecture firms, and loved it.

I thought ‘ok I really want to do something like this’

I really worked hard. I went up a class in English, I was doing the higher tier of maths… I really tried hard and I did quite well and, you know, I ended up with okay grades. I got, I think, 5 or so Bs, the rest Cs and that’s pretty standard, and for me I was quite happy. But I didn’t get the grades that I wanted to get.

Dyslexia is variably referred to as a disability, a difficulty, or as a learning disorder or learning difference by everyone from government authorities, to research institutes, to educational establishments. This is interesting as there is quite a lot of conational difference between the four words. It is very true that dyslexia can make things difficult and can be disabling in certain circumstances, but is it a disability or a disorder? We’ll look at this later on, but either way none of the terms suggests that dyslexia can also offer some very positive advantages. A ‘learning difference’, as used by the British Dyslexia Association, is probably the closest to striking neutral.

When asked whether dyslexia has effected the way he works Greg instantly replied:

Dyslexia made me more creative…

Reading is basically just recognising patterns and a formula that someone has created. The majority of people are quite good at recognising that formula. Dyslexic people just aren’t very good at recognising that particular formula, but it doesn’t mean they can’t recognise other formulas. Hence why I really like maths and I work within maths in everything that I do.

Greg’s design process is a highly intellectual and academic one, but it is also fundamentally creative and this is a key point as dyslexia often seems to go hand in hand with creativity. I know from my own conversations and research that a lot of dyslexic people are very good at spatial visualisation, mental manipulation of imaginary 3D objects and parallel thinking. But what’s fascinating is that no one person has the same sort of dyslexia and thus the areas of expertise that dyslexic people can excel in is incredibly wide, though still that common denominator tends to be an element that allows imagination, creativity and inventiveness. A dyslexic process often does not take the most logical or direct path to a solution. The path will be winding, but it will get to a solution (even if not the typical one) usually finding interesting thing along the way.

It’s very possible that many dyslexic people find the use of the two words ‘disability’ and ‘difficulty’ to describe their mental functioning process strangely negative considering that, going back to the idea about dyslexia ‘graphs’, we know that there are areas in which dyslexic people can excel if nurtured correctly.

Greg again, talking about his college tutors:

It’s the teachers that really helped me… he (the tutor) had this system where he would grade you on what you did and your effort. So when he put in the score it would come up with an equivalent. I got an A on my first one and looking back, my stuff was crap, it was absolute dog shite. But my effort was there and so that meant it was an A.

Because I got that, I was thinking ‘hmm I’ve never [done that well]. I mean I’ve got a Distinction in ICT (Information Computer Technology) and I got a Distinction for ‘making’ in RM (Resistant Materials), but then the exam brought the level down again.

So I did graphics and 3D [design] and I got As in my first year. But then I failed Environmental Science, because with environmental science it was really easy to understand the content, but you had to say specific things in specific ways to get the marks and so I just heavily struggled

As different brain types with dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHA, OCD etc. are being recognised (or possibly over diagnosing - though this is an entirely different point and an article for another day) the government has responded in kind with legislation. The Equality Act of October 2010 legally protects people from disability discrimination in the workplace and in wider society, replacing the Disability Act 1995. Under this:

An employer has a legal duty… to make appropriate reasonable adjustments to reduce the impact that a disability has on a person's ability to perform effectively in their role

The act defines a disability as:

A physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Substantial is defined as 'more than trivial

(Quoted British Dyslexia Association)

From an equal rights point of view it is great that dyslexia is covered, but an interesting note is that the NHS definition say that dyslexia is:

A common learning difficulty that can cause problems with reading, writing and spelling… Unlike a learning disability, intelligence isn't affected

This might seem a slightly controversial statement or an utterly factual one depending on your point of view, but what is undeniable is that the government definition and the NHS definition do not appear to be aligned. However though, the government definition can be interpreted as saying that dyslexia is not a disability until it effects a person’s ability to ‘carry out normal day-to-day activities’ and thus dyslexia in general is not classed as a disability. But this is not stipulated.

The brain is a complicated and arbitrary thing and it does make me wonder sometimes as to whether neurological ‘conditions’ analysed through psychological testing can actually be fitted into defined boxes, or whether we are all just on a spectrum (or maybe a multi-layered venn diagram would be a better description). Whatever the case, it’s all in the mind.

Though I could easily go on for longer I must bring this article to a close and to use Greg’s words:

The whole dyslexia topic could be talked about for hours so just to say, anything I have said in this whole interview is a very brief explanation of any of my thoughts.

I echo that statement, but I hope that this has been in some way useful or educational to you. It is not definitive, but hopefully it is informative. Do please leave a comment if there is anything I have missed out or if you have any feedback! It would be very interesting to hear your thoughts.


Find Greg on Instagram


Written by Silas Welsh

Editor & Co-Founder