‘It’s more than confusing our b’s and d’s’: a commentary on the lack of understanding of the needs of social work students who have dyslexia

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Michael Hewson University of Chester, UK

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Drawing on principles of auto-ethnography, this commentary offers for discussion reflections on a personal reaction to some of the struggles experienced when navigating the English social work placement landscape for a student who has a diagnosis (or label) of dyslexia/dyspraxia. Commenting on some of the challenges faced in order to try and survive the placement experience necessary to complete the programme, this account makes recommendations and suggestions for educators in university and in practice.

Abstract

Drawing on principles of auto-ethnography, this commentary offers for discussion reflections on a personal reaction to some of the struggles experienced when navigating the English social work placement landscape for a student who has a diagnosis (or label) of dyslexia/dyspraxia. Commenting on some of the challenges faced in order to try and survive the placement experience necessary to complete the programme, this account makes recommendations and suggestions for educators in university and in practice.

Wider practice context

In England, and most other parts of the UK, social work students typically spend at least 170 days in direct, supervised and assessed practice, spread across two main practice placements. The first placement of (at least) 70 days is typically spent in a private, voluntary or independent agency, with a second placement of (at least) 100 days generally taking place in the statutory sector within a local authority in the final year of study for both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes.

Students are assessed against the requirements of the Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF) (BASW, 2018), focusing on both practical and academic skills and abilities, and are required to critically reflect and report on their own practice experiences. Prior to the placement commencing, work takes place with students and educators to identify learning needs and opportunities, and to explore available options, taking account of practicalities such as geographical location of a placement and travelling time.

Dyslexia and dyspraxia

Dyslexia is defined as ‘a specific learning difficulty that mainly affects the development of literacy and language related skills’ (BDA, 2007); according to Fuller et al (2004), it is the most common self-reported disability among undergraduates in the UK, accounting for 35 per cent of all disabled students. Acknowledged as a specific learning difficulty, dyslexia can impact everyone, including, of course, academics, social workers and students, as well as people with lived experience of using social work services and carers. In addition to being the most common self-reported disability among undergraduates, dyslexia is also the most common disability that will be encountered in the workplace, meaning that for a programme such as social work leading to a professional qualification, support for students is key to enabling the successful completion of the programme and future longevity of career. A diagnosis of dyslexia is highly significant for a variety of reasons, not least the fact that social work students with such a ‘self-declared disability’ are more likely to fail or to be delayed in completing their studies (Hussein, 2008). Although the impact of dyslexia varies substantially and has been said to be along a continuum, frequently reported difficulties include reading, spelling, note-taking, organising essays, timekeeping, expressing ideas verbally, concentrating and using short-term memory. The impact of dyslexia varies, of course, for each individual, and many of those with dyslexia find ways to manage and navigate academic life in some shape or form. For some students, this may mean hiding the fact that they have dyslexia from others.

As a lifelong condition, dyslexia has a significant impact on a person’s daily life, and therefore meets the criteria of a disability as defined by the Equality Act 2010: ‘a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’. Dyspraxia, also known as Developmental Co-ordination Disorder (DCD), is covered under the Equality Act 2010; as such, education providers and employers (among others) are under a duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for people with dyspraxia and/or dyslexia. Despite this, only around 40 per cent of students with dyslexia leave university with a degree classification of 2:1 or above, compared to 52 per cent of non-dyslexic students with the same IQ (Byrne, 2018). The idea of reasonable adjustments in placement may at times be subjective; social work placements are frequently in short supply, and in England, agencies are not obliged or commissioned to provide placements for social work students. Coupled with the student–supervisor power imbalance, this makes it difficult for students to articulate their needs in relation to such a lifelong condition as dyslexia and/or dyspraxia. Practice placements on professional programmes make up a large percentage of teaching and learning experiences; yet, as Boath et al (2018) note, they are a key trigger point for social work students dropping out of university.

Social movement

This commentary communicates some of the key messages that came about through recall, reading my diary entries made at the time and conversations with friends and university tutors. Drawing on principles of auto-ethnography (Ellis et al, 2011) has allowed me to reflect through a narrative lens on the experiences of placement, and linked together with the academic literature regarding social work placements, this commentary offers a powerful example of my thoughts and feelings associated with a social work placement. Within auto-ethnography, generalisations are difficult; however, the fact that auto-ethnographies are typically written in the first person and provide pragmatic examples of communicating one’s lived experience makes them readable and offers a ‘window’ into a specific moment in time in such a way that helps readers get a sense of that experience.

Social work students are encouraged to be reflective (Knott and Scragg, 2016); yet, how and if such reflections translate into action is less obvious. Reflecting following a placement experience by making reference to my diary entries in relation to the struggles experienced on placement, and relating these to the dyspraxia and dyslexia literature, may seem like an unconventional approach for an academic piece; yet, it provides a powerful way of stimulating discussion and debate. This commentary ends by offering some practical suggestions regarding what I believe needs to take place to further support (social work) students with dyslexia and dyspraxia in placement.

Auto-ethnography is sometimes referred to as a narrative and a dialogue where the focus is on the author (Witkin, 2014), and it provides a unique opportunity to comment on, illuminate and develop wider understanding of an issue. Memories of experiences, diary entries and recall are key resources in writing auto-ethnographically, and it is this that I have attempted to do in order to highlight some of the relevant and pressing issues. Auto-ethnography is not about uncovering hidden ‘truth’ and meanings; rather, it is about ‘enriching understanding’ (Witkin, 2014: 4) of a phenomenon.

My background

My early experience of education was challenging; primary school was a daily struggle with spelling tests, understanding grammar, using punctuation and memorising facts. Looking back at my early school reports, I see that I was described as a pleasant and hard-working pupil and I recognise that many of my difficulties throughout primary school were mitigated through support and positive working relationships with teachers and teaching staff. In the final year of primary school (Year 6), I experienced great anxiety as I realised that in comparison with my peers, I had what I saw as weaknesses within my academic abilities and as a consequence may ‘fail’ and therefore be segregated in high school. This did not occur and I started high school initially with my friends, though was soon placed in different ‘sets’ to them.

I struggled in most areas; learning languages seemed impossible, as did memorising facts for history and memorising information and communication technology (ICT) systems. My strengths were found in the practicality of physical education (PE) and philosophy associated with religious education (RE). Mainly because of my interest in sport, I was a (semi-)popular young person who became known for brawn and not brains. I would frequently mistake the meaning of words, use them incorrectly and display a poor general knowledge, being either ‘teased’ or ‘bullied’ for this, depending on perspective. I truly believe that not all my peers (and/or teachers) meant this in a sinister way, but it was nevertheless equally damning to my confidence and sense of self.

Leaving school, I scraped through maths and science but had to retake English (maths and English being prerequisites for future college courses). I see now how both the primary and high school curriculums were not designed for me (and I suspect any student with dyslexia and dyspraxia), being as they were exam- and test-based. At college, I thrived as I felt a sense of control over my grades for the first time in my life. I was now completing diplomas and national certificates, which meant that I was able to research and complete coursework, and not face the pressure of frequent exams and tests. My grades increased significantly as I felt a new sense of control and started to engage in extracurricular activities such as volunteering in the library, learning martial arts and offering my support on open nights.

Achieving a degree as an undergraduate added to my new-found confidence. My degree in sport development was incredibly challenging and a similar pattern emerged from my school days: in project work and practical assignments, I scored highly; in written assignments and academic tests, I floundered. Working in a social care setting alongside studying for my degree allowed me to think about the future and what I might be able to achieve with a professional qualification. Despite some misgivings, I took the plunge, and several years after graduating, I was back at university again, only this time as a postgraduate student following a professional programme.

Formal education has never come easy to me. I find it much easier to speak rather than attempting to get the structure right on paper – or figure out the spelling of a word. If the spell check does not understand the word I am trying to use (a regular occurrence), then it can be disheartening, exhausting and frustrating to identify appropriate synonyms, especially if it is then a word that exercises less impact. This additional reasoning and wrestling with my own thoughts is taxing, frustrating and demotivating. This is especially the case when it may be the same word that I have misspelled or misplaced over and over again. On occasions, reading also becomes time-consuming and a chore due to needing to read the same page several times and processing what I am reading. For example, recalling social work theories proves difficult, though in practice and conversation, I can appear well versed in my understanding and application. Social situations have always been somewhat challenging as I have always had a sense of not being intelligent enough to say anything meaningful and would often hide behind other more noted and acknowledged attributes, such as my physical prowess. Despite these difficulties, I managed to keep up with academic work throughout university and flourished during my first social work placement – a ‘practical’ one with lots of opportunities for verbal discussion and practice.

The second placement presented more of a challenge to me – this placement for social work students in England is anecdotally referred to as ‘the statutory one’, typically taking place in a local authority with a reputation for being fast-paced and having a high turnover of cases. Students are told that they need to be prepared to ‘hit the ground running’, which at the outset seemed a challenge for any student, let alone one labelled as having ‘additional needs’. Despite some anxieties, I approached this placement as an opportunity to learn and hone my skills; after all, I reasoned, I only had to get through 100 days……

The following comments are taken from my diary written at the time:

Day 1

I’m feeling the pressure of needing to make this placement work – what can I do? I just need to relax, breath & trust myself I must remember I know more than I realise.

Day 7

Today I completed a Honey and Mumford (1982) learning styles questionnaire my scores were:

Activist – 5/20 Reflector – 20/20 Theorist – 16/20 Pragmatist – 12/20

This is very interesting as I know am a very deep thinker, often over analytical and a philosophical individual. Do I think too much? Some questions for supervision might be: Do I have a good balance? The right balance? (between theory and practice). Do I need to be more of an activist?

I found myself laughing at a comment my colleague said about the learning styles questionnaire “It’s supposed to be a bit of fun.” Do I reflect, think & analyse too much? I thought this statement was excellent for reflection – which perhaps answers my own question.

Day 15

Induction period has now finished but I still wonder when will I feel competent? Confident? Capable? I’m ready for things to start to click into place but they aren’t yet.

Day 25

Today I know I need to complete a care plan and gather more information. I am still hoping I can turn a corner today and become more like the social worker I want to be, competent and confident that I know what I am doing.

Day 27

Meeting with my practice educator today. Pretty anxious about this as I feel like I’ve failed momentously – I cannot keep up with the pace and the volume of work that is coming my way. Not sure what to expect. I hate that I’ve tried so hard, continued to fight tooth and claw for my masters – only to fall at the last hurdle – it feels so unfair to pass everything other than placement and lose everything!

(Following meeting) I think my sense of humility, honesty & self reflection allowed me to come across well and I found the meeting went really well. I feel as though I am starting to come into my own.

Day 40

Supervision with my practice educator – I can’t keep up – I know I need to step things up but I haven’t got anything more to give. I’m trying my best and it’s still failing.

Day 50

All I can think of is two years wasted. I can’t cope with statutory social work with all the pressures and bureaucracy.

I need to think of ways I can use my skills in similar roles

It’s all happening again – it’s not them after all – it’s me

Half way through – to come so far and fall so short of the mark – to be able to demonstrate that I am competent enough to deal with several social work ‘cases’ at a time

What the hell am I going to do?

Day 51

A meeting today with my mentor when I was given a caveat that if things (particularly my ability to juggle several cases successfully at a time) did not improve then it would appear that (from the placement’s perspective) social work may not be for me:

I’m crippled with anxiety

I feel like I’m drowning

I want time to stop

I want to run away from everything and everyone

I’m not coping

I’m not managing

I’m failing

Day 55

I wanted to phone in sick today

I wanted to drive past work to somewhere quiet and escape

I wanted to ignore/avoid the reality that I’m not managing – again – with no excuse.

Day 56(review of placement due tomorrow)

Can’t think this far – possibly just typing

I don’t know how I’m going to get through today.

My world feels like it’s crumbling around me

I feel like I’ve missed something

I hate that I want to succeed and can’t

I feel like I am dying a slow death – and everyone knows it.

Day 65

Big assessment 2 today

I went back after three days off (Agreed processing days) and felt incredibly overwhelmed by the volume of my cases in my tray and the time it was taking to complete all the phone calls that was needed before I could start on assessment paperwork.

Day 66

I’VE NOT GOT THE SKILLS to be a social worker

Its not working

I can’t take anymore of this!

I’m sure this isn’t how it’s supposed to feel

Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change.

The strength and courage to change the things I can

And the wisdom to know the difference.

I’m at the end of my tether and pushing against every boundary I have, extra classes, extra reading, additional note taking and in depth discussions. I can’t do anymore or try any harder that I am doing. I feel like I’m driving with the hand brake on.

I’m feeling anxious about not being good enough – quick enough – efficient enough.

What will be will be.

This was my last diary entry – and at a point where I left the office that night using only single responses to questions because I was using everything I had to hold back the tears. I felt at a total disadvantage and not able to utilise my skills. I felt like I had come to a gunfight armed with a rock and a small thin stick. It was at this point that a decision was taken by my mentors that the placement would end.

Reflecting on the diary entries from a ‘safe’ distance of time and place, I consider how I feel dyslexia/dyspraxia has shaped and influenced me both personally and professionally. There are benefits that I do recognise, for example, understanding that I think differently and process information differently has allowed for a profound sense of empathy towards other people who have diagnoses or labels. I understand some of what it means to be different and not ‘fit in’ to conventional norms, and I therefore believe I have a powerful perspective. This can make me relatable to others who are perceived by society as ‘different’ or perhaps as an ideal mediator between service users and family members when trying to build understanding. I have always been a far better listener and observer due to not wanting to put myself on the radar of others by getting something wrong, so my contributions tend to be in matters that I have a good grasp of and plethora of knowledge/experience about. I always prefer to engage in verbal debates as opposed to written exchanges. Although these refined skills have been incredibly useful on a practical basis in my support work and hopefully in my future career, the additional time taken to process things and memorise details have come at a price to my confidence and self-esteem.

Recommendations and conclusion

The impact of austerity and the, at times, pervasive neoliberal approach to social work practice means most social workers carry high caseloads (Diaz et al, 2019), resulting in the fact that students on placement, particularly within local authorities, are invariably being used as an extra pair of hands. There are huge implications for supervision and management of students when practitioners themselves may be struggling with an unmanageable caseload; yet, there has been little research carried out regarding the implications of this for all concerned. Regarding universities, my early exploration of this topic indicates that there are significant knowledge gaps in the educational institutions regarding students who have dyslexia (Oloffson et al, 2012). How much students themselves reveal regarding their diagnosis is variable. The labels of dyslexia and dyspraxia may themselves be seen as social constructions (Collinson, 2019), for example, a bilingual study evidenced that you may be dyslexic in one language but not in another (Smythe and Everatt, 2004). For Collinson (2019), people with dyslexia should be seen as an ‘othered’ group, the concept of which is socially constructed. For a profession dedicated to upholding people’s rights, challenging oppression and promoting social justice, social work has some way to go before the exclusion (implicit or explicit) of students with dyslexia/dyspraxia is addressed. An inclusive discourse regarding openness and transparency that recognises positive features, not just so-called deficits, is needed.

What I believe is needed is a greater appreciation of what dyslexia/dyspraxia means for individuals in general and a removal of the tiresome myths and assumptions that are frequently made, for example, that people are intentionally disorganised, forgetful or overwhelmed, and that people ‘use’ dyslexia as an excuse to get out of doing things. Additionally, for a student on placement, what is needed is some recognition of the impact of ‘otherness’ that having dyslexia/dyspraxia brings about. I feel that students need to know that it is alright to be different. No platitudes of ‘superpowers’ are needed here; rather, knowledge and understanding that students with such labels may bring something different to practice is much needed. There needs to be a removal of the stigma that many students face by being afraid to be seen as not coping, or of being overwhelmed. The fable of the tortoise in the race against the hare appears relevant here: lateral thinking and creativeness can be powerful tools and sometimes a better route than speed alone.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

References

  • BASW (British Association of Social Workers) (2018) Homepage, www.basw.co.uk

  • BDA (British Dyslexia Association) (2007) Homepage, www.bdadyslexia.org.uk

  • Boath, E., Simcock, P., Watts, R., Thomas, N., Evans, J., Taylor, L. and O’Connell, P. (2018) Stay with the ‘FLO’: evaluating a mobile texting service to enhance social work student retention while on placement, Social Work Education, 37(7): 90923. doi: 10.1080/02615479.2018.1459537

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  • Byrne, C. (2018) Why do dyslexic students do worse at university?, www.theguardian.com/education/2018/dec/06/why-do-dyslexic-students-do-worse-at-university/

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  • Collinson, C. (2019) Ordinary language use and the social construction of dyslexia, Disability & Society, 35: 114.

  • Diaz, C., Pert, H. and Thomas, N.P. (2019) Independent reviewing officers’ and social workers’ perceptions of children’s participation in children in care reviews, Journal of Children’s Services, (6).

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  • Ellis, C., Adams, T.E. and Bochner, A.P. (2011) Autoethnography: an overview, Historical Social Research/Historische Sozialforschung, 14(3): 162173.

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    • Export Citation
  • Fuller, M., Healey, M., Bradley, A. and Hall, T. (2004) Barriers to learning: a systematic study of the experience of disabled students in one university, Studies in Higher Education, 29(3): 30318. doi: 10.1080/03075070410001682592

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Honey, P. and Mumford, A. (1982) Manual of Learning Styles, London: P. Schmeck, RR.

  • Hussein, S. (2018) Work engagement, burnout and personal accomplishments among social workers: a comparison between those working in children and adults’ services in England, Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 45(6): 91123. doi: 10.1007/s10488-018-0872-z

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Knott, C. and Scragg, T. (eds) (2016) Reflective Practice in Social Work, London: Learning Matters.

  • Olofsson, Å., Ahl, A. and Taube, K. (2012) Learning and study strategies in university students with dyslexia: implications for teaching, Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 47: 118493.

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    • Export Citation
  • Smythe, I. and Everatt, J. (2004) Dyslexia: a cross-linguistic framework, in I. Smythe, J. Everatt and R. Salter (eds) International Book of Dyslexia: A Cross Language Comparison and Practical Guide, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, pp 129.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Witkin, S.L. (ed) (2014) Narrating Social Work Through Autoethnography, New York: Columbia University Press.

  • BASW (British Association of Social Workers) (2018) Homepage, www.basw.co.uk

  • BDA (British Dyslexia Association) (2007) Homepage, www.bdadyslexia.org.uk

  • Boath, E., Simcock, P., Watts, R., Thomas, N., Evans, J., Taylor, L. and O’Connell, P. (2018) Stay with the ‘FLO’: evaluating a mobile texting service to enhance social work student retention while on placement, Social Work Education, 37(7): 90923. doi: 10.1080/02615479.2018.1459537

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Byrne, C. (2018) Why do dyslexic students do worse at university?, www.theguardian.com/education/2018/dec/06/why-do-dyslexic-students-do-worse-at-university/

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Collinson, C. (2019) Ordinary language use and the social construction of dyslexia, Disability & Society, 35: 114.

  • Diaz, C., Pert, H. and Thomas, N.P. (2019) Independent reviewing officers’ and social workers’ perceptions of children’s participation in children in care reviews, Journal of Children’s Services, (6).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ellis, C., Adams, T.E. and Bochner, A.P. (2011) Autoethnography: an overview, Historical Social Research/Historische Sozialforschung, 14(3): 162173.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fuller, M., Healey, M., Bradley, A. and Hall, T. (2004) Barriers to learning: a systematic study of the experience of disabled students in one university, Studies in Higher Education, 29(3): 30318. doi: 10.1080/03075070410001682592

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Honey, P. and Mumford, A. (1982) Manual of Learning Styles, London: P. Schmeck, RR.

  • Hussein, S. (2018) Work engagement, burnout and personal accomplishments among social workers: a comparison between those working in children and adults’ services in England, Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 45(6): 91123. doi: 10.1007/s10488-018-0872-z

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Knott, C. and Scragg, T. (eds) (2016) Reflective Practice in Social Work, London: Learning Matters.

  • Olofsson, Å., Ahl, A. and Taube, K. (2012) Learning and study strategies in university students with dyslexia: implications for teaching, Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 47: 118493.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Smythe, I. and Everatt, J. (2004) Dyslexia: a cross-linguistic framework, in I. Smythe, J. Everatt and R. Salter (eds) International Book of Dyslexia: A Cross Language Comparison and Practical Guide, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, pp 129.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Witkin, S.L. (ed) (2014) Narrating Social Work Through Autoethnography, New York: Columbia University Press.

Michael Hewson University of Chester, UK

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Valerie Gant University of Chester, UK

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