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Surviving Law Exams when you have a Disability

Student reading

I’m a fifth year LLB/Diploma of Legal Practice student, an enthusiastic journalist, zealous world traveler, obsessive reader, horse lover, occasional violinist, sporadic highland dancer, and I’m dreadfully dyslexic.

Well, to be completely truthful it’s not actually called dyslexia. My learning disability goes by the name of frontal brain blah blah (insert long name here) processing disorder, but it helps when educating people about my disability to give it a name that they have at least heard about.

When people first find out I have a learning disability they often ask me, “What is it like to be the way you are?” While I don’t try to hide away from questions or natural curiosity – in fact I actively encourage an open dialogue – I really do struggle to answer such an enquiry. I was born this way so having a learning disability is as natural to me as breathing, and is intricately woven into the fabric of who I am. But what I can provide you with is a description of how I overcome some of the everyday challenges I face when studying.

My disability relates to executive processing functions, which tend to arise when I’m placed in situations, such as lengthy examinations, where written answers are required. My spelling ability, handwriting, arithmetic skills, memory retrieval, and organisational skills can become compromised. I read in word shapes, which means I don’t focus on individual letters of a word but the way a word is formed on the page.

I also struggle with multi-tasking and find it completely impossible to write notes and listen to a lecturer unless I have access to PowerPoint slides as a point of reference. Mathematics and numeral pattern recognition have been known to reduce me to tears as I seem to have an inability to hold multiple numbers in my mind and am left frustratingly grasping for half-remembered figures that disappear like apparitions. It’s the same with spelling words. No amount weekly practiced word lists can solve a failure to recall the way a word looks within your mind’s eye.

I rely heavily on structured outlines and step-by-step processes; if one doesn’t exist I create one to fit the problem. This process, however, is difficult under time constraints. Naturally, exams are pretty traumatic. I don’t think I have ever completed an exam since I began taking them in year ten. When I do sit a test, nothing I write down is ever in the appropriate order and I’m left with an exam paper filled with arrows that resembles a snakes and ladders game. To make up for this, I try to perform well in written assessments to secure myself enough marks to get through a course.

Despite these challenges, I don’t think of myself as having a disability. Instead I see myself as having abilities. I may not be very good at maths, or remembering case names and dates, but I have strong interpersonal and communication skills, and I am good at explaining legal concepts to others, and I remember obscure case facts from first year that many others forgot after the assessment. I work hard and tackle challenges head on; I do this every time I pick up a textbook or attend class.

While most people are generally very understanding, I have come across some students who find the prospect that I receive exam assistance appalling. It is easy to feel things are unjust or unfair when you think someone is receiving a benefit, but these adjustments are anything but an advantage.

Ten minutes of extra time every half hour and the use of a computer is the difference between me failing a semester’s worth of subjects and being able to compete academically with my cohort. These conditions are never going to help me get the best marks in my year; they are simply giving me the tools to ensure that I am put on a level playing field.

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