One In Five
Sunday 2 August 2015, with Katy Gosset & Carol Stiles
Accessing an education
Welcome to Otago University
Your education starts here.
With a red button.
Thousands of young people head south each year to study, make friends and, in some cases, party. About 800 of them will need some extra help. And that’s where the university’s Disability Information and Support Student Services come in.
Wide, accessible doorways with push button entries, a lecture note-taking service and a team of student advisors. They’re all part of the system that allows students with disabilities to access the same quality education as everyone else.
The service’s manager, Melissa Lethaby, says students also have access to a study room with ergonomic furniture, a trolley for carrying their books around the library, as well as readers and writers to help them sit exams. She says, when she started with the service in 2002, it supported just 325 people and that figure has now more than doubled. And, while the numbers might be pleasing, it’s seeing the students achieve that is most rewarding.
“We provide them, I guess, [...] with the training wheels and then, once they’re self-sufficient, they’re off, up and running.”
Paige Aitcheson is one of the students who uses the service after being diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 11.
“I really struggled with it for so many years. I called it the D-word. You couldn’t even use the D-word in our house.”
She says she felt embarrassed about her diagnosis and initially kept it a secret from friends.
“Before that I thought I was dumb and stupid. I didn’t really understand, I guess, what dyslexia was.”
Once diagnosed, Paige attended lessons at SPELD and began to achieve academically at school. She later became an advocate for students with dyslexia, speaking at her own and other schools about the condition. She decided to pursue a degree in physical education as exercise had always been a refuge from her learning disability.
“I struggled at school, in the classroom, so, for me, sport was the thing that I felt equal [at] and felt that my dyslexia didn’t really affect me.”
She says her physical education teacher literally changed her life when he told her she was naturally gifted at the theory of PE and should go to university.
“I kind of just laughed out loud accidentally because I can’t even spell university, [...] but yet he wanted me to go and study it.”
Levelling the Playing Field
Paige says, throughout high school and, now, at university, she has a reader/writer during exams. That means someone will read the questions to her to ensure she understands them and then write out her dictated answers.
But she says using a reader/writer is a skill in itself.
“People struggle using them at first but, for me, once you know yourself and how to best utilise the reader/writer they become a real asset to [...] learning, I guess. It levels the playing field.”
Paige says, in the past, her exam results did not reflect her true ability as she was unable to use more expressive words because she couldn’t spell them
“So, if I had a reader writer, then I could use the exact words I wanted to use and I wasn’t limited by my spelling ability or my writing frequency.”
She says accessing a reader/writer does require a formal diagnosis of dyslexia and the right documentation and getting that can be an expensive process. She’s grateful to the Disability Information and Support Student Services for funding an assessment for her. Paige says some people can become disheartened by a diagnosis like dyslexia but she was determined to get an education.
“I just use it as a driving force and I’m not going to let my [...] learning disability affect me.”
And she believes the Disability Information and Support Student Services play an important role.
“You still have the right support to achieve what anyone else can achieve”.
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