On being Dyslexic at Cambridge University

By James E. Addicott ©2018

In this blog I reflect upon the process of studying for a PhD at one of the world’s highest ranking universities as a ‘dyslexic’ student. Let me begin by reflecting upon briefly detailing my background story:

I was diagnosed as dyslexic at the age of 30. I read a journal article once that stated that 50% of prisoners were diagnosed as dyslexic in a small study conducted in The US. I dropped out of education after leaving college with D and E grade A-Levels. From the age of 18 to 28 I moved to the then ghetto district of St Pauls in Bristol. I began a career as a pirate radio, nightclub and street-team DJ. I found it incredibly difficult to integrate with so-called “normal” society and much easier to integrate in places with less paperwork and bureaucracy, what some might call the “underworld”.

From around the age of 30 onwards my life slowly began to improve in terms of social mobility. In 2003, I studied for a certificate to teach English to foreign adults. I was picked up on my spelling by the examiners. They told me I could not qualify unless I could obtain a pre-diagnosis as dyslexic because my spelling was that poor – they didn’t know if I was being lazy or not. Then I went on to study for an undergraduate degree later that year. That year the Bristol Dyslexia Centre officially diagnosed me as quite severely dyslexic.

In 2013 I started studying for my PhD at the age of 37. Cambridge University is a place of big books, dense written texts, paperwork forms and bureaucracy, towering libraries and thick bookshelves – a dyslexic’s worst nightmare. I began blogging about it at the time – see ‘Experiencing dyslexia at The University of Cambridge’

I was registered with the disability department as dyslexic. I was told that I would not receive financial support since I was able to get accepted at Cambridge University, so clearly there was nothing much wrong with my reading and writing abilities. Although that was quite a blunt point to make, there was some truth to it, so what had changed? Why was I able to study for an undergrad, masters’ degree and PhD at one of the world’s highest-ranking universities, given that I had been diagnosed severely dyslexic?

I am convinced that the fundamental difference, more than anything, was that from around the year 2000 onwards, computer spell checkers and auto-correct software had become increasingly more advanced. These days, as I write, I can see the computer compensating for my disability in real-time. Now that is progress.

If I were to turn of the speel checker off and type and I naturally undestand that words are spelt then this article would read something like this. I find spelling vegetables such as coliflour, potatoes, bannanas, cabages, cuecumbers, most difficlt… so, turning auto-correct back on now…

Another remarkable shift that computing technologies have brought to us all, dyslexics and non-dyslexics alike, is the prevalence of icons, graphics, pictures, signs, symbols, multimedia or ‘visual culture’ over alphabetical writing or written texts. The home screen of a smartphone much more accurately represents the visual thinking mind of the human being much more so than sentences and paragraphs. Everyone struggles with reading and writing, hence an education system of fifteen years or more, so visual could well be increasing efficacy throughout modern societies, which eases things for dyslexics like myself.

After spending five years studying independently for a PhD, afforded the time to learn and educate myself, I understand my dyslexic way of thinking much more clearly. I tend to read much differently than non-dyslexic students. My natural approach to a linear text tends to be non-linear, spatial and visual.  I pick apart different parts of books or journal articles. Maybe I will read the back sections of a book before the introduction, preface or chapter three. I find myself pinpointing certain paragraphs or sentences and unraveling them; completely deconstructing and reconstructing them until I am satisfied I understand or feel I confidently know what an author is saying.

As I read, I tend to doodle and convert the ideas written in words, paragraphs and sentences into non-linear, spatial diagrams. Each book on my bookshelf has been converted into a series of spatial, 2D diagrams. A web of interrelated diagrams and scribbles is how I get to understand or grasp complex ideas and working theories such as Marx’s theory of base-structure/superstructure or Weber’s theory of rationality/irrationality. See some examples below:

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I was able to carry these skills over into my final oral exam. During my viva, as my examiners asked me a series of very complicated questions. I ducked my head down and quickly scribble down diagrammatic representations of the ‘conceptual forms’ that I thought their questions took. In an exanimation environment, where the pressure is quite high, it helped me to gather my thoughts together by briefly looking at these scribbled diagrammatic forms. I could then answer the examiners quite comfortably. I realised that this was a skill that I had developed over the course of my PhD studies that I could utilise swiftly and confidently. Such ‘envisioning’ or ‘spatial visually’ are gifts of dyslexia – see Thomas G. West In the Mind’s Eye: Visual Thinkers – Gifted People with Dyslexia and Other Learning Difficulties. By reading about dyslexia (ironically) and receiving support from disability centers, I have been able to realise my disabilities, weaknesses and strengths in order to study at one of the worlds leading universities.


The worst part of being dyslexic at Cambridge University was attending the disability resource center to register as a dyslexic student. Then being handed a thick bunch of paper forms to fill in to register as dyslexic – the irony was profound! Non-dyslexic people would probably not understand the relevance of such an act. Such a situation might be compared, in analogous terms, to a student on crutches being told to register at another office located at the top of a long flight of stairs. You have a disability with paperwork and forms; you are given a heavy load of paperwork and forms to ‘help’ tackle the problem. It was a real statement of misunderstanding. Such problems with forms and paperwork are a persisting problem even following my PhD. As an example, I find myself informing a potential employer that I am registered disabled and have a specific learning disability called dyslexic, but then having to pay someone to proof read my job application because it could be rejected for seemingly haphazard spelling mistakes and grammar errors.

I say all of this to say that problems with dyslexic have been remedied with computing technologies, thankfully. However many quite traditional ‘barriers’ still obstruct dyslexic peoples’ everyday lifeworld. That a large proportion of the prison population might be dyslexic might suggest that disability in reading and writing is a publishable offense en mass.

“Dyslexia” is in some respects simply a label or tag; everyone has their own subjective ways of understanding and communicating within this complex world. Although sometimes I resent the label I still strongly identify as being “Dyslexic”. I hope this blog can contribute towards helping other dyslexic people in their struggles. If you identify as dyslexic or non-dyslexic and can relate to any of the above then please share on your similarities or differences in the comment section below.

Website: jeaddicott.com
Email: mail@jeaddicott.com
Follow me on Twitter: @james_addicott or Instagram: jeaddicott


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