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Frances Conteh's string bags with St Marylebone School

Key details


  • 6 December 2022


  • Qona Rankin

Read time

  • 4 minutes

51 years ago, I enrolled on a Foundation Diploma in art and design as a dyslexic student, at what is now Kingston University. Seven years ago, my daughter who has dyslexia, began her Foundation course at the same university. For me, reflecting on our experiences highlights what has changed in art and design education for neurodivergent students over the last 50 years.

Finding value in diversity of thought

But before we look back, let’s look ahead to what awaits today’s neurodivergent students studying art and design. According to ‘Creative Graduates Creative Futures’ the future looks rosy, because three years after graduation, graduates with dyslexia are just as likely to be employed within the creative sector as graduates without dyslexia. This is great news when you consider that it is estimated that dyslexic people are four times more likely to be unemployed than people in the general population.

“In fact, diversity of thought in media and technology fields is becoming increasingly valued and sought after.”

Qona Rankin Dyslexia Coordinator

The creative industries can provide great professional opportunities for our dyslexic community. In fact, diversity of thought in media and technology fields is becoming increasingly valued and sought after. Some architectural and design businesses look specifically to recruit people with dyslexia. Other organisations are also realising the benefit of neurodivergent thinkers. Microsoft and Goldman Sachs recently started initiatives specifically recruiting neurodivergent individuals by altering the interview process to make it much more inclusive.

So, how can we help neurodiverse individuals navigate art and design education to reach those rosy futures? Thankfully, over the last 50 years, studying art and design in HEIs (Higher Education Institutions) for neurodivergent students has changed for the better.

Contrasting experiences of dyslexia

School of Communication studios

In 1971 I began my Foundation course which was blissful. I was introduced to so many new techniques and materials, and there was hardly any writing to do. I then stayed on at Kingston for my BA. The studio work was interesting and enormously satisfying, however the dissertation was a different matter. There was no dyslexia support of any sort.

In 2015 my daughter began her Foundation course. She enjoyed the year and like me learnt lots of new skills and was relieved that there was hardly any writing to do. However, when she did have writing tasks, help was on hand from the Specific Learning Difficultly (SpLD) support unit.

Some years after my BA graduation I began my MA here at the RCA where once again, when I began writing my dissertation, my dyslexia came back to bite me. My drafts would come back to me with ‘sp’ in red written all over the text (this was long before computers). My viva voce exam was a terrifying experience, and I only just scrapped my MA. The only help available was the welfare officer. I remember sitting in his office sobbing my heart out. He was very sympathetic and had heard about dyslexia but couldn’t offer me any helpful strategies or accommodations.

Making friends with dyslexia

During the mid 1990s I was a senior lecturer on the product design BA at the university of Hertfordshire, I began noticing that some of the students whom I considered the most talented in terms of their design work were not getting first class degrees. I discovered that their dissertation mark was pulling the total down to a 2:1 or sometimes a 2:2.

Around that time Jane Graves gave a talk as part of our staff development fortnight called ‘Make Dyslexia your Friend’. During this talk a light bulb in my brain illuminated the reason why some of our brilliant design students were failing to get first class degrees. At the end of the talk, Jane challenged the Dean to pay for a member of academic staff to spend a year at Southbank University training in adult dyslexia support. I leapt at the opportunity.

“I became the first dyslexia coordinator at the RCA and was able to provide that all essential one-to-one help with the dissertation, and other written tasks, that I so desperately needed when I was a student. I love the irony of that.”

Qona Rankin Dyslexia Coordinator

In 2002 I became the first dyslexia coordinator at the RCA and was able to provide that all essential one-to-one help with the dissertation, and other written tasks, that I so desperately needed when I was a student. I love the irony of that. I set up workshops to improve reading, prepare for presentations and practice for the viva voce exam. I also raised awareness amongst staff to enable them to understand what tasks students might find particularly difficult and how to help them.

RCA support for neurodiverse students

Library Kensington

Our library now has a book finding service for students who get overwhelmed, particularly by the Dewey classification system. The library also subscribes to Bob and Zotero both of which are essential for any dyslexic students. On the dyslexia pages on the Intranet there is a whole section focusing on how staff can help neurodivergent students in the various situations they find themselves in, such as tutorials, lectures, seminars and demonstrations. We also now offer extra time for examined written assignments and the option to pre-record verbal presentations for viva voce examinations.

Of course, most students now have their own laptop with text to voice, dictation, spell check and the myriad of new software packages, particularly mind-mapping. This is a huge advance on what was going on 50 years ago. Technology and government legislation, the Disability Discrimination Act and Disabled Students’ Allowance, have really improved accessibility to Higher Education for our neurodivergent students including those with dyslexia.

Nurturing creative journeys through mentorship

So great news for our students, because once you have got your place at art school you will not be discriminated against for the way your brain processes information. But what about those students who cannot navigate their way onto a GCSE or A level course and are thus prevented from accessing art and design?

“All our mentors are neurodivergent so provide amazing role models and show students how being neurodivergent can be a positive attribute.”

Qona Rankin Dyslexia Coordinator

Thinking about this prompted me in 2008 to found the Creative Mentors Foundation, a charity that encourages and helps neurodivergent secondary school children access the art and design curriculum. We do this with four wonderful RCA alumni: Alice McLean (Jewellery & Metal, 2012), Frances Conteh (Fashion, 2010), Stuart McCaffer (Sculpture, 2010) and Nicholas Faris (Information Experience Design, 2022) . All our mentors are neurodivergent so provide amazing role models and show students how being neurodivergent can be a positive attribute.

Stuart McCaffer's self-portraits with Charter School

As the positives of neurodiversity become more widely acknowledged across different industries and sectors, it is more important than ever that the right support and encouragement is in place at all levels of education to enable all individuals to succeed. There is fantastic support in place at the RCA, and other HEIs, yet more needs to be done to help neurodiverse individuals navigate the early parts of their journey through art and design to careers in the creative sector.

More information

The RCA is committed to celebrating diversity and supporting and helping all of its students to reach their full potential. Comprehensive support exists for students with disabilities, and we encourage disabled students who will be studying at the College to contact us at the earliest opportunity to discuss their requirements.

When we refer to the term disability we also include long-term medical or mental health conditions including eating disorders and specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyspraxia.

The Dyslexia Coordinator provides academic support for dyslexic and dyspraxic students. This includes: screening tests; strategy workshop sessions; individual tutorial help with dissertations for students who do not receive the Disabled Students Allowance; study skills and time management.

The RCA also employs a specialist Disability Adviser who offers confidential advice to enable students can make informed decisions about support opportunities that might assist them during their time at the RCA.

We can also offer assistance to students applying for Disabled Students' Allowance (DSA).

Visit our Disability support page for more information.

Disability support

Visit our Dyslexia support page for more information.

Dyslexia support