Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Dyslexia, determination & design

Credit: Kris Alex/Cyber First/UK Government

You may remember late last year a government advert featuring ‘Fatima’, a ballerina, stating that she should pursue a career outside of the arts. The aim of the advert was to encourage individuals from the arts and other sectors to retrain in ‘cyber’ (whatever that means), asking people to look outside of their current roles at these trying times.

The irony that creative people were needed to conceive and put the advert together was not lost on our community…

Researching further, Krys Alex is the talented photographer who captured Desiree (Fatima the ballerina’s real name) and her teacher. The teacher, Tasha who has been cropped out of the photo is someone who dedicated ‘her life to the arts’ and ‘helping young people and children like Desiree pursue their dreams and their careers as artists’.

Credit: Still taken from video @krysalex / Instagram

Alex goes on to say when she found out about the advert she was ‘shocked’ ‘devastated’. Further explaining that ‘artists should stand together and support one another’ and ‘we should not be encouraged to stop doing what we love’, I couldn’t agree more…

My initial reaction upon seeing the government advert was anger. The same anger that I felt when I was repeatedly discouraged from taking the career path I loved and told I should not pursue the arts. The two loudest voices, or rather the ones that stick in my mind were the Deputy Head of my secondary school and my ‘father’.

Dyslexia and the struggle

From a young age, I knew that I was dyslexic, I can remember copying my best friend’s work in my year 4 history class about Henry the 8th. I just didn’t know how to express and capture my thoughts in words. The writing was utterly painful and endlessly confusing, I would have rather been doing anything else.

This is a theme that continued throughout my education. Becoming particularly pronounced when I started secondary school, Year 7, double English every Thursday with Mrs S, she made my life hell. Often calling me ‘stupid girl’ — she didn’t appear to believe in the idea of dyslexia — and made me stand in front of the class reading what felt like endless pages. Being laughed at and struggling with reading the words… despite that, the torment continued, I was reassigned to Mrs S, the same teacher the year after.

Determination… discouragement of the ‘creative’ subjects

These experiences and countless others meant that in my early years of secondary school I did not enjoy the ‘core subjects’ especially English. I found solace in art and creative subjects. Relief came in the form of taster days, for years 10 and 11, I could specialise in subjects I chose, and drop some of the non-core subjects. These taster days gave students an insight into subjects they could study over the following two years. Among others, I had chosen Graphic Design. In my taster session I created a business card for a dog walking business, I loved coming up with ideas and making them, by the end of the taster session I had decided I was going to be a graphic designer. I remember that decision being very clear and obvious, at the age of 13 I knew what I was going to be when I grew up! Woohoo!

Not the original, the dog walking business card created on my taster day looked something like this. The original is buried in my Mum’s loft somewhere…

I was so excited, a weight was lifted. Some of the subjects that only focused on words in exercise books were behind me, this was the beginning of doing more of what I LOVED. You can imagine my reaction, when one day, when standing outside of the canteen at parents evening the deputy headteacher, voiced his concern to my mum that focusing on entirely creative subjects might not be the best path. He went on to explain that choosing only creative subjects would not offer me a rounded education, and would narrow my future university and career options.

Was he applying the same template to education for all children that he spoke with, or just the ones that were heavily interested in the arts? Was he taking into account that I found the subjects that I was dropping and not choosing nearly impossible? Or that despite being severely dyslexic (I still have the report to and constant typos to prove it), I did not have the support I required from an underfunded and oversubscribed Special Educational Needs (SEN) department within the school? Thankfully my mum listed out quite clearly, why I had chosen these subjects and why I would be pursuing them.

The Cultural Learning Alliance reports that the educational value of the arts positively contributes to a child’s cognitive abilities, future prospects, their general health and wellbeing… and much more. Despite the positive impact the arts can have on a child’s development “ASCL’s survey with the BBC in December 2017 showed bleakly that 90% of school leaders had reduced arts provision in their schools over the past two years.” (CLA, 2018)

It concerns me that this individual is now the Head Teacher at my former secondary school. His predecessor was a supporter of the arts and even commissioned me to create a few items for the school. One item surfaced on the school’s Twitter account. It’s still there and in use…I wonder if the current head teacher’s opinion has changed, remains the same or if he would now consider each child’s interests and needs before sharing his opinion?

Credit: @CDarwinSchool via Twitter

In the years following we had universities come into the school for mock interviews, to showcase our portfolios and for us as students to learn more about the institution. I remember in my interview with my chosen university the lecturer was particularly impressed that I had got the name of the institution correct, no one else had. In the minutes following the interview, I had decided I was going to attend Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication (now known as Ravensbourne University).

With all of my excitement, soon after I had a conversation with my ‘father’. He stated that he didn’t think university was a good idea, much to my disgust. Because I was a girl. This was compounded by the fact that he thoughts the arts was a pointless area of pursuit. This further fuelled my determination.

Design. Look at me now

After applying and despite being offered scholarships elsewhere I began my studies at Ravensbourne, in the soulless Swiss cheese of a building that stood next to the O2 Arena on the North Greenwich Peninsula, I had found my people!

Credit: ravensbourne.ac.uk

I lugged, what felt like the world’s heaviest laptop (2009 MacBook Pro), A3 sketchbooks and countless other materials back and forth to North Greenwich each day, but I loved it. I spent more time with my head in my sketchbooks than going out, I wasn’t very good at being a ‘proper’ student. But the determination to prove I could do it, get a 1st, and be the best is what drove me. The words from the people who told me I couldn’t were always in the back of my mind; they often still are.

University provided the springboard I needed for me to further explore my creativity and propelled me into my first industry job, at the age of 19 as a designer at The Sunday Times (News UK). Over the following years at News UK, with a brief stint at The Telegraph, post-graduation, I worked on everything from graphics, Digital ads and UX/UI. Eventually finding my way to Reach plc, or as it was known then, Trinity Mirror.

At Reach, since specialising in UX, for the first time since those first years at university or taking my chosen subjects at secondary school I’m excited about design. I love what I do, I look forward to walking the few meters from my bed to my desk, catching up with my team, collaborating, creating wireframes, flows (& much more) to improve our users’ online experience.

Credit: Reach, 2017

It takes one person to inspire… I do sometimes wonder if I had not found Graphic Design, which started me on the path to UX design, what would I be doing now? Would I have gone to university? Would I have found another subject that I had been as passionate about… maybe? Who knows?!

I’m really happy with where I am today, I feel like I have found my groove. Whilst this article does focus on the struggles I will always be grateful to those who inspired, encouraged and told me I could, the teacher’s, mentors and colleagues. That journey deserves an article entirely to itself!

Dyslexia will always be there, I will always have to read an email ten times before I send it because I didn’t spot the typo the first nine times. Dyslexia has provided me with a window to view the world differently, approach problems in an alternative way, but ultimately it has lead me to where I am now.

I sit here writing this article in my secondary school leavers hoodie, which I only dug out from the depths of my wardrobe at the beginning of this pandemic, wearing it for the first time since I left school. When I received this hoodie at the end of my secondary school career I could never imagine sitting in my London flat that I share with my fiancé, listening to Einaudi (pianist and music composer), working within an amazing team and the wider creative community where I can explore my creativity, feeling empowered.

Whilst it has been an interesting journey, I’ve been grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had along the way, the teachers and mentors having the right connections, I recognise that the placements, university education and those first introductions were a privilege and not opportunities that not everyone gets.

There is one person who has remained a constant and my cheerleader throughout, my mum. Who spent hours in the car driving me around the M25 to Dartford and back again to see a dyslexia tutor. Empowering me, encouraging me, asking difficult questions at my schools and pushing for what I wanted to do, and always ensuring my voice was heard. Ultimately my mum cleared the path so I could pursue my chosen studies and career for which I will be eternally grateful.

The arts like any other subject area should not be discouraged. Everyone should be able to pursue the subjects they enjoy and excel in, not forced down the path of the average statistic.

To all those who told me I couldn’t, look at me now… and to all those who are being told that they can’t; You can!

Want to learn more about Dyslexia? The NHS has an overview here.

Dyslexia support groups; British Dyslexia Association (BDA)
and
Local Dyslexia Associations (LDA’s)

Find out more about the arts and creative community via Arts Council England

Reports by the Cultural Learning Alliance on: The Arts in Schools and Key research findings on The Case for Cultural Learning

References
Cultural Learning Alliance, 2018, link

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Jessica Squires

Jessica Squires

Lead UX Designer, dyslexic, explorer & occasional article writer…

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