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Kicking an Elephant Through a Catflap: Celebrating Dyslexia Awareness Week at the RCA

In support of Dyslexia Awareness Week (3–9 October) and World Dyslexia Day (6 October), the world-leading Royal College of Art – where 30% of staff and students are dyslexic or dyspraxic – is co-hosting an exhibition and panel forum with Imperial College London to draw out some of the different experiences of these extraordinary people.

Dyslexia affects approximately 1 in 10 people in the UK, so the concentration of dyslexic and dyspraxic staff and students at the College is statistically notable. As a result, the College offers targeted support and is a focus for interest in the relationship between creativity and neurodiversity (a term that locates neurological differences like dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD as normal, natural variations in the human genome).

Understanding what it feels like to live with a dyslexic brain requires a leap of intelligence, and visual metaphors can be very powerful. ‘It can feel like kicking an elephant through a catflap’, says animator and illustrator Josh Saunders, who describes the incredible frustration of brimming with ideas with no clear way to get them out, until he discovered communicating visually.

Many staff and students are diagnosed later in life. Sculptor and Senior Tutor (Research) Kate Davis says, ‘I have always felt that I was looking at the world through the wrong end of the telescope and that a proper sense of belonging remained elusive, out of reach and diminished.’

Some have struggled with school and education, achieving success against the odds. Orthopaedic surgeon and Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons Toby Baring remembers, ‘Medical school is where my problems started. I failed my first year, my second year (and almost gave up medicine) and my fourth year. It took me the best part of 20 years to master the art of learning.’

Others find their dyslexic or dyspraxic thought patterns are integral to their practice. Tutor in Mixed Media Textiles Julian Roberts explains that what are traditionally seen as limitations are skills that expand his practice: ‘I regularly confuse opposites: left, right, back, front, inside, outside... This skill helps me re-orientate patterns in less conventional ways: disorientation is geometrically very useful, allowing me and my students to design unpredictable silhouettes never before constructed.’

The struggle for understanding is a regular theme of the exhibition. Mark Rawley, Recreation Assistant at Imperial College London, says, ‘To my fellow neurologically diverse, I advise that we all have to show patience with the unenlightened naturally right-handed – they limit themselves in their assumption that the world appears the same to everyone. Thankfully we know it is not true, the world is a wonderful tale that we continue to turn the pages on.’

That positive view is reinforced by product designer Henry Franks' range of dyslexic objects, designed in response to his own dyslexic condition. The aim was to improve the objects through the addition of dyslexia, so an upside-down mug represents aspects of 'inversion' (a dyslexic attribute). The mug appears odd because we have become used to an accepted form, but it actually functions better – it's more stable, easier to hold and keeps the contents warm for longer – which is a powerful message about the positive aspects of neurodiversity.

Creative Differences: Dyslexia and Neurodiversity in Science, Art and Design
Thursday 6 & Friday 7 October, 10.30am ­­– 5pm
Open to RCA students and staff or by appointment: please email [email protected]