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Why dyslexia support for university students can feel ‘like going to a sexual health clinic’

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 4 October 2021

Charlotte Hamilton Clark.

The week of Oct 4-10th is Dyslexia Awareness Week, when organisations promote public engagement with dyslexia, often on a specific theme. In 2021 the focus is on invisible dyslexia, including overlooked dyslexia among adults in higher education.

My new study highlights how UK university students experienced dyslexia as an often unrecognised and invisible phenomenon. The study contributes fascinating insights into students’ decisions regarding disclosure and concealment of dyslexia as an invisible identity at university and the impacts of these decisions on their self-esteem.

In the qualitative project I explored the lived experience of dyslexia from the perspective of students who had registered for dyslexia support at four UK universities. The study used both email and phone discussions to investigate students’ views and theorised the impact of universities’ approach to dyslexia on their identity and self-esteem. Among the research contributions, the project expanded our understanding of dyslexia as an invisible phenomenon in three areas:

  • Many students with dyslexia aren’t aware of it when they reach university, as dyslexia’s invisibility leads to it being missed by teachers or masked by a student’s coping strategies at school [see Henderson, 2017]. Once dyslexia is identified at university, the project found that students go through a complex process of acknowledging dyslexia as part of their identity, as well as spending time applying for and accessing support. This process often doesn’t start until the second or third year of a degree or post-graduate course, which may be too late to have a positive impact on some students’ studies. The study findings suggest that unrecognised dyslexia through school negatively impacted students’ academic self-concept and self-esteem later at university, highlighting the importance of dyslexia recognition (even if the effects are mild) at school.
  • University policy approaches dyslexia as a disability, to satisfy the UK Equality Act 2010 and justify the provision of remedial help, which is administered through support departments segregated from subject teaching [see Riddell & Weedon, 2006]. As a result, the students in the study were separated from mainstream learning environments when they accessed support, so dyslexia moved from invisibility to being painfully visible, “like going to a sexual health clinic” as one put it. The focus on segregated support also led to feelings of dependency on external help and lowered student self-esteem. Some students had even rejected university support to take back “ownership” of their studies. Therefore, the project questions whether a focus on delivering dyslexia support through segregated departments hinders universities from: (i) reducing barriers for those with dyslexia; (ii) increasing their inclusion in higher education; and (iii) raising awareness of cognitive diversity among lecturers and student peers.
  • At university, lecturers and student peers often aren’t aware of a student’s dyslexia, as it isn’t obvious and support is separated from teaching, which misses opportunities for informal help with studies. Further, the students in the study used dyslexia’s invisibility to manage the stigma of dyslexia by hiding it in many educational settings, fearing misunderstanding and prejudice. This led to negative identity impacts, including conflict, for example as students feared discovery yet wished lecturers to be sympathetic to their difficulties. The students even used deceit, for example when concealing dyslexia from peers. These dyslexia non-disclosure choices further affected student self-esteem through the resulting conflicts, awareness of dishonesty and feelings of isolation (see the Figure below).

This early-stage project,  conducted for my PhD, paves the way for further work in this under-researched area, exploring the lived experience of dyslexia as an invisible cognitive difference in adults and the impact on self-esteem of dyslexia as a managed identity.





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