I’ve found being dyslexic incredibly frustrating, comical, upsetting, and positive at various points of my life. I’m Jess, a geologist researcher, with a BSc and PhD from the University of Aberdeen. I love the outdoors, but I always dreaded reading, writing and public speaking- all of which I do regularly now (and enjoy!).
At the age of eight I was identified with dyslexia and received learning support classes throughout primary and secondary school. At primary school I still remember wishing I could read the Jacqueline Wilson books my classmates were enjoying, rather than the ‘Biff and Chip’ books with about twenty words to a page I was given. Towards the end of Primary school, I was lucky that my parents bought me some of the first Harry Potter audiobooks for Christmas. Read by Stephen Fry, I would listen to those books on repeat, occasionally reading along, so much so that almost all of those cassette tapes and CDs were repaired with several pieces of cellotape each or covered in scratches. Audiobooks were a window to worlds I had been wishing to have access to for such a long time, and still to this day I listen to them and other podcasts daily.
At high school I found attending learning support classes more frustrating and I particularly disliked being pulled out of the 15-minute morning registration to attend them, though I am grateful for their support now. After a bit of a rough start at high school, I began to try harder and found more satisfaction in learning, particularly enjoying Geography, History and Product Design classes. I still struggled in English and vividly remember finding it near impossible to write a 300-word essay on a topic of my choice. However, with the encouragement of teachers, family and learning support I achieved seven Highers and one Advanced Higher.
University and PhD
I was lucky enough to get into university, initially to study Geography. Within the first few weeks I had yet another round of tests for my learning support, where I was told I had moderate-severe dyslexia as well as dysgraphia (which I had never even heard of!). Throughout my undergraduate degree, I found several moments difficult but particularly enjoyed my Geology classes, with lots of field trips, microscope work and where being descriptive and scientific was far more important than your ability to write an essay. I was also incredibly fortunate to have a few dyslexic friends which really helped normalised dyslexia further.
I changed my degree from Geography to Geology towards the end of my second year, as I had done the prerequisite courses. I particularly found my feet by the fourth and final year and LOVED my dissertation which involved seven weeks geological mapping on the remote Scottish Isle of Rum, and later an associated written report. While the writing was hard, again it was more descriptive, scientific and interpretive, so worked far better for my brain and overall, I received a first class degree.
When I started my PhD I was of course worried, like most people are, about writing my thesis. I was lucky to have a topic I loved, studying the ancient (60-million-year-old!) lava flows of the Isle of Mull, and while again I thrived during the fieldwork, writing was daunting. However, little by little I got the words down and found getting my figures/images together first helped me with the necessary text. The more I wrote of my thesis the easier it became. While never plain sailing, it all came together – all 300+ pages! And though quality is far more important than quantity, I still must remind myself I’ve come a long way in the 14 years since I seriously struggled to write 300 words in High School.
Learning more about my dyslexia
Over the years, I’ve learnt more about how my dyslexia and dysgraphia affect me. To me, I often think of my brain as a messy room- everything is there, but I don’t know whether it is in a drawer, under the bed or in the cupboard. I often struggle to find the right wording while writing and speaking, which can be annoying at times. Dyslexia affects me far more than just bad spelling, but the older I get the easier it is, not because it impacts me less but because I am better at managing it.
Having dyslexia may be incredibly frustrating, and at times upsetting, but for me I do believe it has been a massive positive in my life and it has helped me get to where I am today. When you must work consistently that little bit harder, it becomes the norm and as a result I became willing and eager to work hard. I love my job, the work, and the daily challenges I face. I truly believe having dyslexia, and the support I have received through the years by so many, has instilled a positive work ethic and drive which I am grateful to have.
What helped me most with my dyslexia:
- Supportive family & friends: my parents always made me believe that dyslexia should never hold me back, and my friends would always help me see the funny side of my spelling mistakes, while still being supportive and there for informal proof reading. I’ve had my fair share of people who have been unkind or unsupportive of my dyslexia, however, its about surrounding yourself with the right people and not giving up!
- Supportive education: at times I may have resented being treated differently from my peers but those hours of extra support have certainly helped me! Endlessly grateful, for all the exam readers, proof readers and learning support staff through the years.
- Audio books & podcasts: never to be underestimated, I was able to enjoy books, subconsciously improve my vocabulary and sentence structure all while enjoying a story.
- A laptop which reads my written work back to me: invaluable for my university studies (just wish I had it sooner) helps me daily to write, spot my spelling/grammar errors and read sections of text/papers/websites when I feel I need the extra support. I had my laptop read this blog aloud to me several times as I typed it.
- I Google a word for spelling when spell check is no help: Even now I often struggle to find the correct spelling for some words, especially in geology, so a simple google (occasionally with some context) and I almost always find the right spelling.
- Practice & time: the most annoying one, but there is no quick fix, and at the age of 27 I am still learning and improving daily. With each challenge I improve, and while many things don’t necessarily come naturally that certainly doesn’t mean I can’t do them!
- Acceptance: while at many points I hated being different, such as the extra classes, the lower expectations of my abilities from others, being given sheets in a different font to my peers, sitting exams alone… the list goes on. Dyslexia is absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about. So many people are dyslexic, and you may be surprised with who else you know or may meet in the future have it too.
Lastly, my message to any dyslexic would be while there are many challenges to dyslexia, having dyslexia is by no means always a negative. There are many things you can do and you will likely surprise yourself if you try and have the right support in place! As a teen I once heard someone describe dyslexic people as “stupid & lazy”. I couldn’t disagree more (though at the time I said nothing). Dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence, & certainly all the dyslexics I know work exceptionally hard to achieve what they have! If these personal stories illustrate anything it is that you CAN get to where you want to be!
Dr. Jess Pugsley, Guest Blogger