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Student Showcase Archive

Rebalancing Dyslexia and Creativity at the RCA

It’s well known that a high percentage of students in art schools are dyslexic and dyspraxic. In support of Dyslexia Awareness Week (DWA), we’ve taken a look at how dyslexia affects students at the RCA, and what the College does to enable these talented individuals to make the most of the opportunities provided by postgraduate study.

At the RCA – the world’s number one art and design university – 29 per cent of current students identify themselves as dyslexic, compared to 5–10 per cent of the overall population.

Dyslexia affects the way the brain processes written and spoken language. Dyslexic people may have difficulty processing and remembering information they see and hear, which can affect learning and literacy skills. It’s a frequent report from RCA tutors that their very able students of art and design have come through an educational system being told there are things that they ‘can’t do’.

Jo Stockham, Head of Print, says, ‘We have had really great experiences with dyslexic students achieving distinctions for their MA dissertations, having had almost no exam success in their lives, and finding the support at College and the diagnosis really boosts their confidence.’

Because dyslexia is associated with heightened visual and spatial awareness, problem-solving skills and lateral-thinking abilities, the thought processes that cause difficulty with understanding the printed word can also be a source of creativity. Rob Phillips PhD, Senior Tutor in Design Products, says, ‘My dyslexia is an integral part of my creativity as a designer. I have not and never will see it as a limitation to me; I see it as a way of looking at the world.’

Robin Howie, RCA alumnus and graphic designer adds, 'Communication underpins all of my design work, and for that I require a command of language; whether that be visual, verbal or experiential. Being dyslexic can at times derail putting language to work in what’s considered the right way. Sure, this can be inconvenient at times, but in the creative process a different perspective is always more than welcome.’   

While dyslexia has historically been considered a disadvantage, it’s widely believed that many creative ‘geniuses’, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, might today be classified as dyslexic. Twenty-first century artists and designers who are also dyslexic include filmmaker Steve McQueen, architect Richard Rogers and Turner-nominated performance artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd.

The College offers a comprehensive range of support structures to enable students with dyslexia to reach their full creative potential. Students who believe they may have dyslexia or dyspraxia are offered screening tests, followed by individually tailored academic support. This can range from tutoring for dissertations, special arrangements for assessments, or group workshops covering areas of difficulty such as memory, note-taking, verbal presentations, relaxation techniques and library skills, depending on a student’s individual needs.

Alongside providing support to enable students to make the most of the opportunities of a postgraduate education, Dyslexia Support at the College also contributes to research in the field of dyslexia. Dyslexia Coordinator Qona Rankin has been carrying out research into the link between drawing and dyslexia. Students with dyslexia often describe visualising things in three dimensions yet struggle to put these ideas on paper. In examining this research, tutors at the College are able to better understand the students’ learning differences and adapt their teaching methods to particular needs.

Jo Stockham explains, ‘I really encourage people to think of their writing as part of their studio practice, and to plan through visual means, making a collage of images or laying texts and images out on a table as a way to structure relationships, which can then be written up. Many Print students make artists' books, so the obsession with words and the difficulties of making meaning precise that many dyslexic students share becomes a source of creativity rather than a problem.’

Dyslexia Awareness Week is coordinated by the British Dyslexia Association, an organisation that supports those with dyslexia, through raising awareness of the condition and campaigning for a more dyslexia-friendly society.

Dyslexia Support at the College is committed to helping students better understand their own working processes and enabling them to combat the frustrations and anxieties that are often associated with committing ideas to paper, whether that be through writing or drawing.  The result is giving students the confidence to find their own way to communicate their innovations, ideas or creations.

Student Support can also help students identified as dyslexic access Disability Support Allowance (DSA). Administered through students’ Local Authorities, DSA covers the cost of specialist equipment, non-medical personal helpers, extra travel costs or other course-related costs, depending on the individual’s needs.

Video: Emily Mantell (MA Animation, 2003), Gifted