Dyslexia – ‘a rose by any other name…’

By Charmaine McKissock

Participants who recently attended Brite training on Screening for Dyslexia – subtitled: The ‘Onion Skin’ method versus the ‘Dipstick’ method – asked me to post up details about a debate on Disforum which summarises the thorny discussions that ensue each time we try to grasp the idea of dyslexia. (For those of you that don’t know Disforum, it offers an exchange of ideas, advice and information on issues concerning disability in FE and HE, and I am always impressed just how generous members are with their responses to personal queries. To join Disforum visit http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/. Or just type in Disforum and you will be able to visit the archives.)

The author Rob Fidler gave his permission to reproduce the posting that set off a swelling wave of responses on Disforum:

‘We are grappling with a thorny issue, which we suspect many other people are as well, and would like to broaden out our discussions to the various forums.

‘Our issue is with assessments for dyslexia / SpLD. We are aware of the BPS definition of dyslexia and the old discrepancy model of dyslexia, but feel that current definitions are vague and causing us problems with regard to putting in place reasonable adjustments and supporting DSA applications.

‘In higher education, perhaps more so than further education, (but the same issue will apply) we are confronted by the issue of academic standards, fitness to practice for certain courses and students being accepted onto courses when perhaps they shouldn’t be. We understand that this is an admissions issue which we as disability advisors/dyslexia support staff have no remit over, but often we are the people dealing with the issues on a day to day basis. For example a student will be referred, often by an academic school, for a dyslexia screening if they are struggling with their course. Now they may well be dyslexic, or they may not have the academic ability to study at higher education level, or a combination of both. With the current BPS definition, which is perhaps more geared to issues at a school level rather that HE, if low literacy skills are evident without any other identifiable cause then dyslexia is the label that is used. Now I, on a personal level, am not in favour of the old discrepancy model based on IQ scores, however the new definition leaves a lot to be desired as it does not seem to differentiate between specific learning difficulties and more general learning difficulties.

‘Linked to this issue is the knowledge of SpLD assessors (specialist teachers and psychologists) that if the label dyslexia is not used then there will be no DSA funded support. This leaves these people in the unenviable position of being funding gatekeepers and possibly having to decide upon potentially successful or unsuccessful outcomes for university students. To an extent this may have always been the case, but we are finding that instead of concluding a report stating that a student is not dyslexic, because of funding pressures, conclusions sometimes contain phrases like ‘dyslexic tendencies’, ‘difficulties that are dyslexic in nature’ which as far as we are concerned are a means of sitting on the fence. This, to us, states that the student has needs and because of the funding mechanism, the term dyslexia is put into the conclusion, but perhaps they may not be that dyslexic, but still needy. Where do these sorts of phrases fit in with a notion of disability. I understand that dyslexia under UK law constitutes a disability (I will ignore the effects on day to day living to keep the argument manageable) and therefore access to the DSA, but how does dyslexic tendencies etc fit into this framework?

‘Other reports use terms like ‘general learning difficulties’, which appears to be a growing label. This is perhaps more clear to us as to what this means, but we’re concerned that this label may not sit well with our students, and do they really need a label like this?

‘These situations lead us to have some concerns as to what our role is within the whole disability/SpLD industry (for want of a better phrase). If we send a report to an LEA that states ‘dyslexia’ and we agree with the report but the LEA challenges this conclusion we support the student and argue the case. If this is acceptable then should we not be using our professional opinion to state to the LEA that we disagree with a report written by a fellow professional? Is our role to offer guidance to funding bodies as well as to students and university staff? Do we not have a professional duty to put forward our opinions?
We are also aware that the SpLD working party set down guidelines and parameters for assessing, but we are not convinced that they are being adopted by all LEAs. This may, we suspect, be due to the pressure of increasing workloads and the fact that LEA officers do not have time to question reports in much detail, but we are increasingly surprised how more and more ‘weak’ reports seem to enable DSA funds.

‘On a personal level I don’t mind tax payers money being used to fund students, whatever their need is, dyslexic or not, but I am concerned about the long term repercussions of this, for two reasons. Firstly is it really a good idea to be giving lots of people a disability/dyslexia label and secondly will the system of funding come to a sticky end unless it is managed professionally.
One final note to consider is the legal issue of which professional is right; the dyslexia assessor who says dyslexic or the university disability/dyslexia coordinator who says not dyslexic, or vice versa.’

Here’s one of the responses Rob received, but what is your view on the debate?

‘A very interesting email that raises many pertinent issues. As an assessor I have difficulties with the term dyslexia, not because I don’t regard it as a genuine syndrome, but because it has become an artificial term as there are many competing definitions and it means so many different things to both professionals in the field and laymen. I prefer the BDA to the BPS definition and use ‘learning difficulties specific to literacy’ and normally add (dyslexia) in brackets to satisfy the need for a funding label. In my opinion, the DFES party missed a golden opportunity to set really clear parameters and criteria for what degree of severity actually constitutes a learning disability that requires DSA funding.

‘Having said all this, I think where the system really falls down is with the Access Centres. As an assessor I am duty bound to report what I find, and sometimes this is a mild/borderline difficulty that is, nevertheless, putting the student at a relative disadvantage in situations such as exams and requires fairly minor adjustments. I state this very clearly in my reports, yet often the list of recommendations and (very generous) equipment allowance suggested by Access Centres seems to be exactly the same for the ‘mild’ students as for those for whom I have reported much more severe difficulties. Perhaps we need ‘bandings’ for mild/moderate/severe and Access Centre recommendations to suit, yet there are real issues of subjectivity unless some form of firm criteria is agreed upon, set, and stuck to.’

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