Try to imagine that a young adult in a prominent university but you struggle to carry a tray without dropping all its contents, direct someone across a building, or remember information you’ve been told five minutes before. This is a typical description of someone with dyspraxia, a condition which remains a confusing enigma for many today, despite its prevalence. Dyspraxia is a Developmental Coordination Disorder which affects the motor skills and speech of those with it. It falls under the umbrella term of SpLD (Special Learning Difficulties) which are defined as exceptional variations in a person’s ability, as well as difficulty with memory and processing information.
October 12 marked the beginning of Dyspraxia Awareness Week. The condition is complex and remains relatively unheard of, in spite of the fact that it can affect as many as 1 in 30 people, meaning there’s likely to be at least one person with dyspraxia in a classroom or workplace. The Dyspraxia Foundation reports that it affects between 2% and 6% of people in the UK and Ireland. Regrettably, there is little common understanding of this particular neurological disorder and it is often confused with its SpLD cousins autism and dyslexia. It is spoken of by paediatricians and educational psychologists as a “hidden disability,” meaning there is no way of telling if someone has dyspraxia upon first meeting them, but it may become apparent when they can’t pass their chronic clumsiness off as a form of interpretive dance any longer.
Growing up with dyspraxia proved both practically and emotionally challenging. Thankfully, I received an early diagnosis when my parents became concerned with my poor coordination. I tired easily, was always bumping into things and couldn’t cycle a bicycle or catch a ball. Later, in primary school, my teachers noticed the discrepancy between my verbal vocabulary and my ability to put words down onto paper. My handwriting was a cramped, unintelligible scrawl, I consistently confused d with b, and learning my seven times table was an ordeal. For many people, dyspraxia can work in conjunction with dyscalculia, an inability to process mathematics, to create a particularly nasty cognitive cocktail. I can remember my best friend in third year, aghast and concerned that I didn’t know how to read the time, and teaching me during a particularly dull CSPE class.
Comparing myself to others was an unhelpful habit of mine, and the more I did so, the more inadequate I felt. At 17, I could write A grade essays on Emily Dickinson’s subversion of the traditional poetic form, but I couldn’t master the tills for my part-time job at a local supermarket.
There is no “cure” for dyspraxia, and the condition continues to affect people throughout their adulthood. There are however many forms of therapy available which can help alleviate the problems faced by those diagnosed with it, including occupational, physical and speech therapy. There are pathways for entering third level such as the DARE scheme, which offers places on reduced point requirements, as learning disabilities can impact negatively on a student’s academic performance.
In Trinity, there is a free Occupational Therapy Service set up called Unilink, and regular appointments can be arranged with them to help manage workloads and stress. The Disability Service bi-annual report of 2014-2015 revealed that 74 students diagnosed with dyspraxia were registered in Trinity last year, that’s 5.9% of the overall intake of students with some kind of disability. I’m glad to say that I never felt in the least way discriminated against in Trinity, and that the Disability Service do all in their power to make things easier for those registered with them.
Support for dyspraxic adults who do not go on to third level is severely limited. For them there is no diagnostic pathway and private assessments can cost hundreds of euro. According to a survey by the Dyspraxia Foundation, an undiagnosed dyspraxic child is five times more likely to suffer from mental health issues once they reach adolescence. There are those who debate that rushing to “label” your child can do more harm than good, that it creates a division between “normal” and “abnormal” children; but these labels are not meant to undermine a child, they exist to make sense of how their brain works. The diagnostic terms just make things easier to explain.
I do believe, though, that it can be said for many dyspraxics and people with other learning difficulties, that it forces them to be inventive. It gives one a different view of the world than those who are labelled “normal”. Because one’s basic faculties are impaired, because one thinks differently, creativity is heightened. Some notably creative celebrities with the disability include Daniel Radcliffe, Cara Delevingne and Florence Welch. All three have spoken openly about being diagnosed as children and how it caused them anxiety in school. But that now, working in creative fields, dyspraxia isn’t that big of an issue for them. When I first found out that Radcliffe had dyspraxia, I was heartened and reassured. Here was someone with immense success and talent having experienced the same setbacks as me.
Luckily, I discovered at an early age that I could compensate for my weaknesses by playing to my strengths. I slowly began to understand that I could use my creativity to make sense of the information I couldn’t absorb by wading through textbooks. My history notes were peopled with cartoonified Stalins and de Valeras. I wanted to learn. I loved to learn. But there was more. I sought acceptance beyond what my eccentricities told people about me.
Talking about dyspraxia and other SpLDs opens up another more complex debate: how does a disability become an identity? Many of those affected by disabilities find profound meaning in their differences. The word difference has become a euphemism used by polite people when speaking of someone else’s “otherness” or misfortune. Are dyslexia, blindness, depression or autism “illnesses” that render those with them useless, or are they just another way of moving through life? In this time of continual social change and acceptance, we can come to understand that difference is important, even essential to improving our approach in the academic and creative worlds.
Illustration by Sarah Morel