Student Stories, Supporting your study

Different programming – how learning that different is not the same as defective helped me thrive

Dylan, PhD student at Cardiff University and Student Intern, shares his experience of living and studying with bipolar disorder and dyslexia.

There is a quote that flies around the internet mis-attributed to Albert Einstein, often accompanied by a much shared cartoon that may well have been inspired by it:

Everyone is a genius.
But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree,
it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

Image credit: origin unknown, retrieved from

Image credit: origin unknown, sourced from

I have decided that in this cartoon I am the penguin. Small, cute, and can’t climb trees. It wasn’t until I made it to university that I realised there were benefits to being a penguin and penguin-y ways of doing things that gave me an advantage over the chimps. Being both dyslexic and bipolar gives me a fairly unique view on the world, something I have learnt to use to my advantage. These are not labels that define who I am but they are integral parts of how my worldview is formed and how I interact with the world around me.


From ‘lazy’ to PhD

Having plodded my way through GCSEs and A-Levels labelled as an able but lazy student, although having no idea why being lazy was so exhausting, I went to Uni in Liverpool because The Mam made me. (To be honest she saw the potential for me to thrive in a new environment and she was right!) Once I settled and discovered the assistive technologies available to me for dyslexia I found that I really could thrive in an academic world. A bit like the penguin that has been waddling on the sand its whole life who suddenly becomes graceful and efficient in the water. I continued in Liverpool to do an MA and now, a few years later, I’m doing a PhD at Cardiff University.


From surviving to thriving

The difference for me from surviving (just) to thriving in academia was assistive technology. Many students with SLDs though face stigma, both from themselves and others, about using assistive technology and other dispensations. “Why do you get a computer?” “Well everyone would do better if they had extra time in exams.” There is in these assumptions that students with SLDs are advantaged over ‘normal’ students which causes these students not to claim or use these technologies that are available to them. Putting it bluntly, this is rubbish. There are norms in academia and all societies that are biased towards particular ways of thinking and working. It’s easy to fall into thinking that those who don’t conform to these ways of thinking and working don’t belong in the academy. It is something I’ve struggled with for years. However as The Codpast points out, a great deal of creative and inventive thinkers have been neurodiverse.


Different programming?

I’ve come to think of being dyslexic as being an integral part of my programming. But it is bigger than that. Think for a moment about computers. There are two main platforms that are used, Apple and Windows. Imagine then that the world is run on Windows, all the software needed to function is freely and easily available for a Windows machine. Now imagine that you are an Apple Mac, people keep telling you that you need to run the freely available software and get cross with you when you don’t. You keep trying to tell them that you can do all this cool graphics stuff but they keep coming back to you saying that that’s irrelevant and you have to run the ‘normal’ software.

University, not unlike society at large, is set up in a way that disables people who are neurodiverse in some way, like trying to run windows programmes on a Mac. Assistive technologies are not, then, unlike being given a Windows emulator that allows the Mac to run Windows software.


Accessing Support at Cardiff University

I contacted the Disability and Dyslexia team when my application for PhD went in. I needed a Dyslexia assessment as an adult, as my previous assessment was a while ago. The team really couldn’t have been more supportive and helped me sort out the appointments I needed and guided me through the process of being assessed and applying for the DSA. It felt really strange to me to apply for the  DSA (Disabled Student allowance) as I do not see myself as Disabled – just programmed differently.

When I realised that accessing the DSA meant that I could get assistive technologies like TextHelp and Dragon Dictate, which are beyond my means otherwise, I started to think about this software as an emulator that would allow me to work on a more even platform. Working with this, and other software and hardware has significantly improved my engagement. Working is less exhausting and it is easier getting thoughts out of my head and onto screen/paper. I’ve also benefited from library extensions and study skills sessions.

If you are, or think you are, programmed differently – get in touch with the Disability & Dyslexia Team and find out if there is an ’emulator’ to help you thrive rather than survive at Cardiff University.


Contact the Disability & Dyslexia Team

You can email, call the team on 029 2087 4844 or visit us at 50 Park Place, Student High Street, Cathays or Cardigan House, Heath Park.


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Best Wishes,

Dylan, Student Intern, Disability & Dyslexia Team


Your Student Life, Supported.

The Student Support Centre has a range of services dedicated to helping students make the most of their time at University, including: Advice & Money, Careers & EmployabilityCounselling, Health & WellbeingDisability & Dyslexia and International Student Support.The Student Support Centres are located at 50 Park Place, Cathays Campus and Cardigan House, Heath Park Campus.For further details of services, events, opening times and more find us on the University Intranet.


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