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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Dyslexia – how aware are you?

Imagine that you had prepared really well for the exam, you knew the course inside out, you understood the concepts and could explain them verbally, yet, when it came to putting your thoughts down on paper, they just didn’t come out as expected. While this may sound horribly familiar to many of you, the difficulties faced in a written exam by a dyslexic actuarial student can be particularly acute and frustrating. These may include misspelling words, poor handwriting, low speed in processing a list of instructions, problems in recalling information, organisational difficulties, coping with ‘off-the-wall’ questions, a lack of confidence, and stress.

What is dyslexia?Most people have heard about dyslexia but the level of understanding, especially of adult dyslexia, is poor. Dyslexia is often thought of as a condition affecting children in learning to read, spell, and write. However, dyslexia isn’t something that just disappears in adulthood. While many dyslexic adults are successful in overcoming childhood difficulties, they go on to experience hurdles later in life at work and in study. The British Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as ‘a combination of abilities and difficulties that affect the learning process in one or more of reading, spelling, writing. Accompanying weaknesses may be identified in areas of speed of processing, short-term memory, sequencing and organisation, auditory and/or visual perception, spoken language and motor skills. Dyslexia can occur despite normal intellectual ability and teaching.’

Does dyslexia affect actuarial students/actuaries?Yes, absolutely! There are no available figures on the incidence of dyslexia in the actuarial profession. However, a good indication is given by the incidence of dyslexia among undergraduates and graduates, which was 2.5% in the 2002/03 academic year. The actual incidence of dyslexia may be somewhat higher if we allow for non-disclosure and undiagnosed cases.

What are the positive aspects associated with dyslexia?Many dyslexics have a strong visual memory and are good at seeing things holistically. This is a fantastic attribute for an actuarial student/actuary, where seeing the ‘big picture’ is crucial. Problem-solving and lateral thinking are also strengths, which stem from finding alternative ways of coping with activities. Dyslexics often have a gritty determination to succeed.Many famous and successful people were/are dyslexics, including Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Agatha Christie, Richard Branson, Steven Redgrave, and Michael Heseltine.

How can study be made easier for a dyslexic student?The later, verbal-based actuarial exams can be gruelling in terms of memory. This is unfortunate, as one of the key difficulties faced by a dyslexic person is inefficiency in short-term memory. Therefore, any techniques for committing things to memory such as mnemonics, colour-coding, or associating pictures/diagrams with words are useful. As dyslexics often see things holistically, note-taking using mindmaps can help. Many dyslexics advocate using audio recordings. In tutorials, ActEd could help dyslexic students, for example by sending handouts in advance, or, subject to agreement with the tutor, a dictaphone could be used. If there are other ways of helping, ActEd would like to know.

What about the exams?Dyslexic actuarial students are entitled to extra support in the exams upon providing advance proof of dyslexia. The policy adopted by the profession is to start with the approach taken for the student in their earlier learning experiences at school and university. A common approach is to allow extra time in the exam to support the potentially slower processing of printed information. However, each case will be treated individually and alternative assessments will be considered.

How can the workplace be more dyslexia-friendly?A first consideration would be the actuarial recruitment process. Many employers use psychometric tests and/or group assessments requiring a discussion around some written material. Is sufficient time being given to potentially dyslexic students? Dyslexics can be a real attribute to an organisation in terms of their big-picture thinking and creativity. Therefore, in turn, employers should value dyslexic people by being aware of and supporting the difficulties that they might encounter. For example, difficulties may be experienced in remembering lists of instructions (written/verbal). Support can be given here by following up messages in a different medium. Other suggestions include:u checking written material or important emails;u providing documents in advance of a meeting;u avoiding using jargon/abbreviations;u producing charts (diagrams) of key processes. Some helpful books and website links are listed on the left. Specialist training courses also exist for dyslexics to help with identifying weaknesses and finding strategies to deal with them, and building on strengths.

How are you diagnosed as ‘dyslexic’?Dyslexia still remains undiagnosed for some adults despite better screening processes now throughout childhood. However, trying to self-diagnose dyslexia can lead to false conclusions and anxiety. Diagnosing dyslexia is the domain of psychologists, just as modelling assets and liabilities is the domain of actuaries. If you think you might be dyslexic, a first step would be to find out more information, for example by looking on the British Dyslexia Association’s website (see left). The British Dyslexia Association can put you in touch with an occupational or educational psychologist from your local dyslexia association and arrange for an assessment to take place.

Useful linkswww.bda-dyslexia.org.uk (website of the British Dyslexia Association)www.dyslexia-college.com (website for dyslexic students and teachers at college or university)Fitzgibbon, G and O’Connor, B (2002) Adult Dyslexia – A Guide for the Workplace Chichester: John Wiley & Sons LtdFitzgibbon, G, McLoughlin, D, and Young, V (2002) Adult Dyslexia – A Guide for the Workplace Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd