Dyslexia in Higher Education

College is a time for students to explore their academic interests. For those with dyslexia, additional support can sometimes be a key factor in the quality of education.


Daniel Hernandez

Illustration by Daniel Hernandez; illustration assets by Leilani Xicotencatl and Tatyana Ekmekjian

Multiplication tables with rows and rows of numbers sit in front of me, from 1×1 to 10×10. Ms. Smith announces the challenge: finish the test within three minutes without any errors. Before we even start, I’m out. I consider my options: act like I don’t desperately want that vibrant, sweet blueberry Jolly Rancher or feign illness.

It’s too late. My face turns hot and red. The shame hits and I shut down, frozen, staring at the test and doing nothing. 

Ms. Smith pulls me outside, which is awkward enough. She knows about my dyslexia – all my teachers do. At the start of the school year my Individual Education Plan, or IEP, makes the rounds. But it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. I think Ms. Smith knows this. She doesn’t give me a Jolly Rancher. Instead she tells me about Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Leonardo da Vinci, some of the world’s greatest minds, all of whom were dyslexic.  

Yes, this story may sound corny and cliché – but it worked. That moment in the hallway of Sutterville Elementary School was pivotal. It was the first time I felt that a teacher really saw my struggle, saw me. 

According to Public Law No: 115–391 (First Step Act 2018), dyslexia is defined as: “an unexpected difficulty in reading for an individual who has the intelligence to be a much better reader, most commonly caused by a difficulty in the phonological processing (the appreciation of the individual sounds of spoken language), which affects the ability of an individual to speak, read, and spell,”

Dyslexia can affect a person’s most basic skills needed for reading, writing and math. It affects 20% of the population, about one in five people, and is the most common learning difference according to Sally E. Shaywitz, a professor of pediatrics and Co-Director at the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, writing for the Journal of Pediatric Neuropsychology. 

With and Without Dyslexia

Like other learning differences, dyslexia is lifelong and not something that can be “cured.” With the right support, most people gain the skills to read and write proficiently. By no means is a dyslexia diagnosis an academic death sentence, but it can have a lasting effect throughout an individual’s life. It can vary in severity, which means every dyslexic person has different needs and accommodations to help them perform in school.

Up to 15% of students enrolled in higher education have a learning difference. Typically that difference is dyslexia, according to Gregory Richardson, a professor at the Department of Special Education at California State University, San Bernardino, writing in the scholarly journal Educational Research and Reviews. 

Some people, like myself, get lucky and are diagnosed at a young age and get support throughout their early education. Some are not as fortunate and don’t end up getting a diagnosis until much later, if they even get one at all. 


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Diagnosis and Transition from High School to College   

Steven Jenkins is a senior at the University of South Florida, majoring in Chemical Engineering. Jenkins was diagnosed in his senior year of high school after a teacher, whose son has dyslexia, talked to him after class one day. 

“He talked to me about dyslexia and other related disorders,” Jenkins said. “I didn’t know there was a name for that. I thought I was just a poor reader and writer.”

Jenkins wishes he had been diagnosed earlier in his education and gotten more support at school. Jenkins recalls basic class exercises like “popcorn reading” and reading off the white board as a source of anxiety. 

“When you’re talking and everyone is just staring at you, you obviously get bullied in school. I got into more fights than normal kids,” Jenkins said. “We would write something and switch with another student to basically check our work and talk about it. I remember specifically I had written the word ‘sure’ as ‘shur.’ I knew that was wrong, but I did it anyway. That was one of those moments where the whole class laughs at you. I had a lot of those kinds of moments.” 

When Jenkins got to college and found a major that focused on math and science, it became a lot easier for him in school. Originally Jenkins planned to go into a blue-collar trade, but after receiving the diagnosis it gave him hope that he was capable of succeeding in higher education.  

“I had spent the entirety of my childhood thinking I was stupid, and at the very end of it when I had my science teacher tell me ‘you’re not, you just have a problem,’ it gave me hope,” Jenkins said. “It gave me the idea that I could be good at something. I could be seen as someone who wasn’t stupid.” 

In college, Jenkins was given accommodations such as extended time on tests and assignments. Jenkins said he hasn’t used his accommodations for more than a year, but he relied on them heavily when taking general ed classes. That extra time was exactly what he needed. 

Noemi Elizabeth Perdomo is a Latina/Latino Studies major, a member of Associated Students Board as a student representative and an advocate for students with learning differences. She transferred to SF State from Skyline in 2018. 

Perdomo not only has dyslexia, but another learning difference as well. She doesn’t like the term “learning disability” but instead prefers “learning difference.”

In high school, Perdomo said she had a special education plan that placed her in classes with about 10 to 12 other students, compared to the standard 30-student class. The smaller classes allowed for more individual support. But going to Skyline after high school, the class size ballooned to a standard 20 to 30 students. 

Perdomo enrolled in Skyline’s Educational Access Center, where she received accommodation and counseling from advisors. She said the advisors there were very helpful during her time at Skyline. 

However, transferring to SF State was what Perdomo describes as a nightmare. 

“I didn’t know what I was doing…I went crying back to my community college counselor and was like ‘I think I chose the wrong institution,’” Perdomo said. 

Luckily, Perdomo’s former counselor at Skyline created a checklist for setting her up with Financial Aid, the Educational Opportunity Program and Disability Program Resource Center at SF State. 

“At Skyline, it would be more of a support system but also a counselor telling you, ‘OK,  you’re going to take these classes,’ etc.” Perdomo said. “At State, they’re like, ‘Oh you have to go talk to your advisor I can’t tell what classes.’” 

This was a big difference from the support she received at Skyline, where the counselors would help plan her academic path. At SF State, the Disability Programs and Resource Center (DPRC) only helps students with receiving accommodations and obtaining documentation. 

Abigail Schwartz grew up in the Boston Lexington Massachusetts area and now lives in Chicago. Schwartz has a bachelor’s in Psychology and a master’s in Political Psychology. She was diagnosed with dyslexia at around 6 years old. 

Schwartz was given support and Wilson/Orton Gillingham tutoring that specialized in teaching reading and writing. 

“That was hours a week from the age of 6, and that was really tough, to be honest,” Schwartz said. “ I feel like I had to work a lot harder academically than other kids at that age.”

Her accommodation in high school took the form of having a laptop in class, which led her to face hostility from some of her teachers.

“Kinda sad- funny, but my American Sign Language teacher — and this is really funny because we learned about the American Disability Civil Rights Act in this class — was really hesitant to let me use my laptop on tests because she thought I would somehow cheat,” Schwartz said. “I don’t know how much you know about American Sign Language, but that is borderline impossible. She would be there signing live in front of the class and then having us write down what she would be saying. Like if I’ve invented the technology that can motion capture you signing and create an English transcription, I think I deserve an A.”

Throughout high school, students and faculty questioned Schwartz about if she actually had a learning difference because, for the most part, she did well in school, graduating just shy of a 3.5 GPA. Some thought she was just trying to “play the system,” to be allowed a computer in class. 

With high scores on her AP and SAT exams, Schwartz got into universities in the U.K. Her distaste for American high schools and her perception of them as being a toxic competition for high grades, sent her to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, which she referred to as “the best University in Scotland.” Notable alumni include Prince Willliams and his wife Kate Middelton, the Duchess of Cambridge. 

At university, Schwartz said her dyslexia wasn’t an issue since she was still able to have a computer and extended time on tests. Schwartz enrolled in her university’s disability program but only met with them about once a year to check in about her accommodation use.  

Using Accommodations and Academic Support

SF State’s Disability Program and Resource Center is where students with any disability or learning difference register’s their documentation and receive counseling for their accommodations. Currently, there are six advisors that can assist students with getting accommodations for classes, according to SF State’s DPRC staff and faculty page.

According to director Nicole Redding, DPRC currently has just about 2,500 students registered, with 640 being registered for “learning disabilities,” which includes students with dyslexia.   

However, students who are looking to get a diagnosis for any learning difference, including dyslexia, have to find testing facilities or professionals off campus. The DPRC web page lists different clinics around the Bay Area that offer assessments, though most come at a cost. 

Reddings said that some clinics offer a “sliding scale” that takes into account an individual’s income and access to insurance to come up with a reasonable cost. She said other factors like what specific test an individual needs also affects cost. One of the Clinics that offer the sliding scale service includes UC Berkeley’s Psychological Clinic and Center for Assessment.  

“So I would estimate that the cost is somewhere just between $500 and $1,500 and how much someone pays depends on what their resources are including insurance,” Redding said. 

According to Redding, many of the students coming to DPRC with dyslexia already have some form of documentation of a learning difference. She adds that when students come to receive accommodations, it’s more than just turning in paperwork.   

“It’s more what we call the interactive process to determine, first of all, whether or not a student’s diagnosis or a suspected diagnosis…rises to the level of disability and needing support,” Redding said.  

When asked about the most common accommodations that students with dyslexia ask for, Redding said that although all accommodations are given on an individual basis, there are some commonalities. She lists examples like having access to technology and digital based materials. 

“To use an assistive technology to help with tracking, to help with highlighting, to have it read out loud as you’re reading,” Redding said. “Another thing can be extended time on an exam.” 

Perdomo feels that her accommodations fit her academic needs at SF State, adding that they really help with learning. One accommodation she has is to have a table in class as opposed to a desk, where she can have more room to work on notes.  

“I’m like, ‘whoa that’s way too big,’ but it’s OK because I can spread out more,” Perdomo said. 

Another is having a note-taker in class with her, though this accommodation, according to Perdomo, has sometimes been hard to fulfill. It can take a while for DPRC to find a note-taker. But she said as long as she can at least take photos of PowerPoints and other written notes from the professor, she is able to manage.

Redding said the process to find a note taker can take so long because it’s on a volunteer basis from other students who are in the same class as the individual with the accommodation.  

“We’re finding another person who is attending the class and who is willing to share their notes with another student,” Redding said. “That requires that the student has regular attendance…making sure that we find somebody who’s actually going to provide good notes.” 

Karen Wiederholt is the faculty director of Upper-Division and Graduate Writing at the TASC tutoring center at SF State. 

TASC is the tutoring service that is offered at SF State, which has tutors available in all subjects. According to Wiederholt, first-time hires go through two hours a week of paid instruction over Zoom starting the first week of school. The tutors at TASC are what Wiederholt calls “generalists,” meaning that they are trained in how to tutor reading, writing and other basic studies. 

TASC offers three different types of tutoring: they have drop-in appointments Monday through Thursday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., weekly or bi-weekly sessions with a regular tutor and one-time appointments, all of which are offered in person or via Zoom.  

When asked about specialized training for how tutors can better help students with dyslexia, Wiederholt said that she wrote and designed an optional asynchronous course that goes over how to best work with students who are neurodivergent, which includes students with dyslexia. Wiederholt created this course because she wanted to learn more about people who are neurodivergent as she has a personal interest in the field. 

“My daughter is autistic, and she has ADHD, and I just wanted to understand more,” Wiederholt said. “For me to put together the course, it was really important to have it mostly in the voice of people who identify as neurodivergent. I wanted to offer more to tutors. Tutors are really interested in this, and they ask for it.” 

When asked why the course is optional Wiederholt says that, unfortunately, due to budget cuts and low retention of tutors, it becomes hard to decide what the department should prioritize when training.

Academic Culture and Microaggressions

Emily Smith Beitiks is the interim director of the K. Paul Longmore Institute on Disability, which seeks to build a culture and community for students with disabilities and learning differences.  

Beitiks says that often people come to her who are trying to navigate DPRC, get accommodations and sometimes face microaggressions about using them from other students on campus. 

“People saying, ‘Oh, it’s not fair,’ or, ‘you’re so lucky’ — not understanding that it’s not a boost but an equalizer,” said Beitiks.

 Beitiks said in some cases students may not want to take advantage of accommodations due to feelings of anxiety when other peers may find out. 

“There’s this discomfort when you’re not there for the test, and you’re kinda outed even though you might not want to be,” said Beitiks, referencing students who have the accommodations to take tests in a non-distracting environment, typically outside of their regular classroom. 

Beitiks also stressed the need for professors to do their best to create an environment where students don’t need to rely on accommodations and not make students feel uncomfortable about using them.

“I don’t do timed tests because I don’t want students to be outed,” Beitiks said “I allow students to use devices even though it may distract some of them and [they] are going to be doing things on their computer that are not paying attention to me because I know some students with learning disabilities are only going to do their best with a computer in front of them.” 

Looking to the Future: Strengths

Helen Taylor is a Ph.D. Research Fellow at University of Strathclyde and a lead researcher at Cambridge. She’s part of a team doing research that takes a new look at how dyslexia is approached. The project seeks to understand how dyslexic people actually play an important role in advancing our species’ adaptation through specialized and complementary ways of thinking. They break this down into strategies ranging from exploration — the seeking of new and unknown knowledge, and the exploitation of already known knowledge. 

Schwartz said that she’s good at big-picture thinking, public speaking and has an eye for graphics, more specifically making things formatted more efficiently. 

“I’m involved in a climate activism group [in Chicago], and there had been text made for a city-wide event with a bunch of organizations at it,” Schwartz said. “They had made this completely illegible text and I’m like I’m going to have to override your graphic. This is ridiculous I can’t believe they set it up this way.”  

Jenkins is naturally good at math, and when he got to higher division math classes he finally felt like he found his place. 

“When I got into differential equations that was the first time I really felt like I had a thing that was mine,” Jenkins said. 

Perdomo said she’s always been good at advocating for students and building a community wherever she goes. 

“My concept at Associated Students has been to advocate for students with a learning difference,” Perdomo said. “We are the ones who suffer a lot. When it comes to being an individual with a learning difference, we put a lot more work in.” 

Up until my first year at community college, doubts about if I had the capability to work at the college level hung over me. Coming out of high school, I was nervous about my academic abilities and that I would flounder in college courses, but to my surprise, I flourished. 

My first semester at Sacramento Community College I made the dean’s list with the best grades I’d ever had in school. The college environment gave me the space to work at my own pace and focus on discussion-based learning. 

At SF State, I’ve found support with faculty and peers that help me continue to succeed. With my intention to graduate in Fall 2023, I’ve done things that third grade me would never have imagined.