Challenge of the written word
Dyslexia is defined by the British Dyslexia Association as “A learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed”.
Approximately one in 10 people in Britain are dyslexic and I was formally diagnosed at the age of seven. I received specialist help at school, including referral to a language unit outwith my primary school. However as I progressed through school, the pattern of support in real terms was restricted to extra time during exams. This concession didn’t really address phonological awareness or verbal memory problems. In short, if you’re not getting it and can’t remember obvious cues, more time does not make much difference.
Law school: unforgiving
University was more of the same, notwithstanding that all the templates were in place through Disability Services. While the literature set out all the right messages, there were two main issues. First was the strong demand for such services with a focus, correctly, directed at the acute cases of deteriorating mental wellbeing. Secondly, at least in the Law School, there was a deficit of understanding among some staff members about exactly what disabilities a dyslexic had and what support was needed.
One notable incident was when, at the start of a new semester, the tutor in a particular module insisted on students using pen and paper and expressly forbade laptops, citing studies of improved concentration with this method (we were never shown the studies). This was and is a big problem for me, as my handwriting bears strong resemblance to the eye of a hurricane and I cannot function without a laptop as an aid. The tutor agreed that I could use one, but when the class started she asked me to identify myself, and when I sheepishly did so, she explained that I had special permission not to use pen and paper.
The crassness and insensitivity of this approach was not lost on my fellow students, some of whom expressed sympathies to me. I would later ask her about it, her position being that the other students had a right to know. Unfortunately I didn’t have the right to know why she thought that.
The challenges of engaging in a degree course as analytical and literate as law with a learning difficulty manifesting in frequent spelling and grammar errors are self-evident. In my degree assignments, markers’ comments focused disproportionately on spelling and grammar errors. When I challenged the appropriateness of this approach as someone registered with a disability, corrections to the marking sometimes followed.
Frankly, my law undergraduate experience was a stressful and unforgiving one. During one significant appeal process, I received a letter from a law school examiner who commented that he found it strange that I had chosen law as a course of study given my dyslexic diagnosis. I no longer have access to this letter due to it being sent via an internal email system, otherwise it would be sitting framed in my office.
I did therefore enter the profession with some trepidation. The problems of a dyslexic person can be masked and managed, but they are ever present and sometimes simply beyond your control. Support for disabilities is a priority for the Law Society of Scotland and much of the legal profession. However this has yet to be translated into appropriate support in a working environment. This support involves empathetic understanding from your principals in the firm, and technology which alleviates the more obvious spelling and grammar issues.
I’ve found that unlike school and university, a key skill as a trainee solicitor is verbal communication by phone or in person. This is something that I enjoy and have been complimented on from my employers. Talking to clients is something I get a lot out of... how much they get out of it depends on your view of my personality.
Most of my training is in criminal court work, and it didn’t take me long to realise the enormous challenges in the work environment caused by the current legal aid rates that are beyond a joke. I consider myself very fortunate that my firm uses a server style filing system which can be accessed at court via an iPad. This type of resource is very rare in my field and I’m indebted to the firm for providing such support.
During advocacy appearances, I use the “Notes” app on my phone to list the key issues I wish to address the court on. My handwriting simply wouldn’t allow for a reliable record. As a court novice, colleagues are enormously helpful and sheriffs seem happy to be addressed by a defence agent who isn’t middle aged. I have had one sheriff criticise me for using my phone to address the court. He stated that I was “being unprofessional”. I decided in an open busy court to explain to him my disability, the problems it posed and the steps needed to manage it. Having heard this, the sheriff retreated, somewhat embarrassed at my robust response.
The resources provided by my employers only work if the court system has a working IT system to support them. Sadly in 2022, there are court facilities that don’t offer basic mobile data provision. The serious point is that it is totally unacceptable that the court complex in the basement of one of the busiest courts in Europe doesn’t offer defence agents 4G. If this article is able to bring about the delivery of mobile data in the basement of Glasgow Sheriff Court, I will be able to retire content and satisfied. I have tools for support in my IT devices, and employers who know my background and the support that I need.
Sadly, I am in a small minority training in criminal court work as most firms don’t operate with the same resources as have been made available to me. I can only assume this is due to legal aid underfunding. That issue strikes me as more than unfortunate. Most of the people I act for are vulnerable to some degree or another, and that’s something I can empathise with. However there will be very few opportunities in the field of legal aid work for lawyers with my background if resources are as scarce as they seem to be.
Don’t be discouraged
Training to be a solicitor is a demanding exercise, but unlike university, the personnel, fellow defence agents, fiscals, clerks and sheriffs are understanding and supportive. Anyone with a disability which may not be an obvious one, nurtures the real fear of exposure and embarrassment in public. Ultimately this way of thinking isn’t one I subscribe to. A lot of younger lawyers are, rightly, concerned at making “mistakes”. My attitude, developed with a lifetime of having a learning difficulty in an environment where my contemporaries don’t, is that this is immaterial.
Working over the years alongside people with dyslexia, I’ve observed them to be more self-conscious than others, perhaps because of this or just in general being different. I see this as a strength and a badge of honour, hence the reason I’m writing this piece.
My main purpose in doing so is to encourage other dyslexic sufferers contemplating either the study of law or entering into the legal profession, that you are not alone, and support personal and technological is available. Highlighting the issue reduces the opportunity for ignorance or prejudice to undermine those of us determined to pursue our careers, even if we can’t quite spell it out.
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