“There are qualities associated with dyslexia that people often underestimate.”

On 18 June, it is Neurodiversity Pride Day, a worldwide day to celebrate that every brain is unique. Utrecht University will also observe Neurodiversity Pride Day to ask for acceptance, inclusion and appreciation for staff members and students with, for instance, autism, ADD, ADHD and dyscalculia. Within the scope of this occasion, inclusion correspondent Myra-Lot Perrenet spoke with two students on studying with dyslexia.

Portretfoto Laura Ruiters en Renate Bosman
Laura Ruiters (l) and Renate Bosman

Renate Bosman studies Interdisciplinary Social Sciences and is the buddy coordinator at Studying without Limitations. Laura Ruiters is a second-year student of Veterinary Medicine. They have been working together for six months now. As a buddy and an experience expert, Renate supports Laura in studying with dyslexia.

Laura, why were you looking for a buddy?

“Since my start at the university, I've had quite a struggle. I could compensate for my dyslexia in secondary school, but there was so much to learn at the university that I couldn't compensate for my dyslexia with more time. I've been to the Study Advisor, I've done courses, but I already knew most of  the involved tips and tricks. After searching, I found Studying without Limitations and Renate. The confirmation that my study difficulties are indeed caused by my dyslexia is nice. That recognition I experience with Renate is good on a mental level, because people can explain how to handle your degree programme, but if you're already trying that and it doesn't work, it's frustrating.”

Renate, what do you like about your work as buddy coordinator?

“I like the gratitude the most. Not just from the students, but also from the buddies. You notice that students appreciate having someone to talk to. That their buddies help them without judging them. Some disabilities still come with quite a stigma. For instance, there are many stereotypes about autism. If someone doesn't know what you're going through, you sometimes get little understanding from them. In such cases, it can then be pleasant to talk to someone who experienced the same thing.”

What are the obstacles if you are studying with dyslexia?

Laura: “Reading goes very slowly and you have to read a lot for your degree programme. Since corona, you're even more on your own. You have far fewer tutorials in which you can have good conversations with the lecturers. These are normally moments where I learn and memorise a lot. During exams, I often interpret a question completely wrong. Then I give an answer, I read the answer they wanted afterwards and then I think: ‘But that wasn't the question at all. If I'd known that this was the question, I'd have given the right answer.’”

What does support from a buddy look like?

Renate: “That varies a lot. I currently support two students, including Laura. The support depends on what the student wants. Some students want to study for an hour with you, so that they have an incentive. We especially see that among students with, for instance, ADHD. There are also students with ADD who want to learn how to schedule, so you make a week schedule together. I talk once a week with Laura about what she ran into while studying, if something was disappointing and how she can deal with that.

Do the two of you ever run into prejudices about disabilities that people have?

Renate: “I especially read a lot about prejudices in applications from students for the buddy programme. Personally, I don't run into prejudices right now. I did deal with it at my secondary school. For example, not all teachers thought I would pass my final exam Dutch, this had a discouraging effect. Earlier in primary school, it was noticed that I was very good at arithmetic and teachers didn't always know what to think of that. They then said to my parents: ‘She simply has to try harder.’ No-one ever thought: ‘Maybe she has dyslexia.’ That realisation wasn't there. I don't know if this is prejudice. I think that this underlying disability isn't noticeable among many students until near the end of secondary school because they can compensate for their dyslexia for so long.

Laura: “I have the feeling that there's actually not enough attention for dyslexia at the university, while everyone at my secondary school knew your ‘label’ and therefore also knew that I have dyslexia. The nice thing about this label in high school was that you got extra help. The downside was that everyone knew your label and therefore had already formed an opinion about what you were capable of. In primary school, I wasn't good at spelling. I was good at arithmetic just like Renate, but no attention was spent on that. It was only about what I couldn't do, that I wasn't smart enough and that I had to try harder. I think that the overcompensating part developed because of that.

18 June is Neurodiversity Pride day. Does that mean something to you?

Renate: “I've never heard of it before, but I think attention for it is important. Besides dyslexia, there are also people with autism, ADD, ADHD or dyscalculia. There are so many people who are neurodiverse and have qualities that people often underestimate. There have been many research projects that showed people with dyslexia have more empathy on average, but also that they are good at seeing deviations in big datasets because they focus on details. On LinkedIn, I recently saw a company where having dyslexia is a preference. A disability limits you one moment, but maybe lets you do something just a little bit better at another moment.”
Laura: “A few years ago, I read that the British intelligence service loved to hire people with dyslexia because they were very good at cracking codes. I thought that was very cool.”