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Heather - being a dyslexic postgraduate
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Name: Heather
PhD discipline: English Literature
Area(s) of work: Self-employed writer; dyslexia support tutor; tutor in creative writing
Year of graduation: 2002
Date of Interview: 07/05/2008

Now Playing: Heather - being a dyslexic postgraduate
Heather explores the challenges she faced as a dyslexic PhD researcher.

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Can you talk about being a dyslexic PhD student?

Well I found that I was one of the very first to benefit from the new system of the local education authorities providing the DSAs funding but when I had it there wasn't one to one tuition available. There was money for books and equipment so I got a computer, whiteboard - which really helped me - and sort of, you know, equipment. But I didn't have any support during the thesis which I needed and I ended up having support from friends and my boyfriend in particular but I feel that I wasn't sufficiently supported by my supervisor or by any facilities available for dyslexics which I know are now in place and which I've participated in. I think I didn't have - I wasn't sufficiently supported and I didn't have enough self knowledge and the thing that I think is vitally important which I have now and which enables my work to sort of happen is I have much more self knowledge about how I need to work and I didn't have that so much at the early stages of my PhD which hindered me in my organisational, in those areas, and made it quite difficult for me to structure my thesis. So I think I always had a clear sense of the benefits of being dyslexic, that my imaginative skills, my creative lateral thinking skills were contributing to my thesis being very original, so I was happy about that but the downsides of being dyslexic I don't think were sufficiently supported or understood by me at the time which made things much more difficult than they needed to be.

In terms of the attitudes you encountered about being both a very intelligent woman doing a PhD and someone who was presenting themselves as a dyslexic woman as well

Mmm. I found, I gave my supervisor my educational psychologist's report and she was kind and you know supportive as much as she could be but she was clearly profoundly ignorant and it was clear that she'd never really encountered dyslexic PhD researchers before and that she didn't really know what to do and she was ill equipped to support me or to understand what it meant in practice, so I had heard people sort of talking – not in reference to me but general comments made by academics in the English faculty that there are no dyslexics at this department or at this university, so I encountered some very old fashioned attitudes and basically kind of bafflement about certain elements of the problems that I was having. My supervisor just couldn't really understand where the difficulties were or how to help me and I think that is a problem generally as a dyslexic student or graduate or researcher in a humanities department.  You're generally going to be faced with ignorance and well meaning bafflement and the only way to deal with that is to empower yourself with knowledge about what dyslexia is and then explain it to people and ask for help but I wasn't able to do that really because I didn't really know what to ask for at the time. And I also felt quite intimated by my supervisors. There's a power dynamic often between graduates and their supervisors which I didn't think was terribly helpful for dyslexic students or anybody with any kind of disability issues. There's rarely a forum in which to raise these issues or, in my experience, it may be different in certain departments but I don't think it was particularly well thought through in mine. I think - the thing is everyone else I know who did a PhD in English had an equally difficult time as me. I don't feel that my experiences because of dyslexia made it more difficult weirdly; I think it's just such a difficult thing to do. It's an incredibly demanding and rigorous apprenticeship and you really, really are required to face all your self doubts about yourself intellectually and stare them head on in the face and that's the kind of amazing thing about - if you get through it and you do it you've really had to do those things. It's almost like a kind of, some kind of Shaolin Monk kind of training. It's like a kind of intellectual martial art and I felt that my brain was sort of disassembled during the process and then reassembled again and it's quite an extraordinary and very painful experience for everyone but if you do it, it really does give you an enormous range of skills and abilities that you won't have unless you've done it. So I don't feel, I think perhaps, well no I think everyone I know found it very, very difficult and demanding and you are forced to look at your own mind in a very, very, very sort of profound way. 

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