From education to employment

Inspirational student: ‘Dyslexia made me who I am today’

@BristolUni – Far from holding him back, William Carter believes his severe dyslexia and dyspraxia and the barriers the conditions put before him were instrumental to his success.

“Being dyslexic means I have had to think and learn differently,” said William, from Southwark, London. “Many schools and institutions aren’t necessarily designed for people with a learning difference, and that’s been made more acute by austerity and budget cuts.

“Experiencing these challenges has opened my eyes to what other people in similar situations are facing, and now I want to help them face those challenges.”

William’s early school years were difficult as he sought to reconcile his love of learning with his dyslexia. At primary school he was put in the bottom set in all subjects and was mocked for his reading ability.

He was referred to children’s mental health services because of his “deep feeling of isolation and loneliness” caused by falling behind other pupils and “never being able to fully participate in lessons”.

This feeling of being ‘stupid’ led to his school attendance plummeting. Around this time he was sent on courses on ‘how to avoid a criminal life’.

He remembers feeling like a “second class learner”, a feeling amplified outside the school gates around some of the more affluent parents: “It was as if they were priming their kids to be lawyers, doctors and engineers, and wanted the rest of us, those with learning differences and those racialised into deviancy, to just ‘not ruin it for them, to do as we were told, and above all not be troublemakers or criminals’.”

Feeling lost, he began to associate his school problems with the colour of his skin: “I remember being a young child and trying to scrub the pigment off my skin, as I desperately tried to work out what was causing this alienation, what was causing my seeming inability to learn and understand the world.”

He added: “Although I was trying desperately to learn how to read and write and being put in the bottom sets throughout secondary school, receiving grades that were passable meant that I wasn’t considered at risk enough for additional support.”

Eventually he was seen by a specialist who gave him a diagnoses of severe dyslexia: a life-changing moment.

“Learning how to read and write made the world more intelligible to me and, ultimately, made me more intelligible to the world,” he said.

“Fundamentally, dyslexia made me who I am today.”

Despite a difficult start, William pulled off a remarkable turnaround, graduating with some of the best A-level results his school had seen and receiving the London Schools and the Black Child ‘Outstanding Achievement Award’ at the Houses of Parliament. This was despite being on free school meals throughout his time at school.

Much of this unforeseen success, he says, was down to the dedication of his teaching assistants, who helped him in almost every class he took during his GCSEs: “People often look down at people with teaching assistants or view them as unnecessarily or a waste of money – but without them I wouldn’t have got through secondary school.”

William, went on to study Politics and International Relations at the University of Bristol, where he attended numerous international conferences, spoke at the European Parliament, was a paid keynote motivational speaker at a major EU symposium and received several University awards for his academic performance. He left with First-Class Honours.

In 2018, William was one of 10 young people selected to represent the 1.5bn young adults of the Commonwealth at the Commonwealth Parliamentarian Forum. He was picked by 90 of the most senior politicians from across the 54-state group to help deliver the closing remarks on the future of the Commonwealth.

Now William is studying for a PhD in Political Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. True to form, he received a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to study at the institution, along with the ‘alumni award’, the highest honour the Fulbright commission can bestow.

The 22-year-old said: “I can honestly say that the teaching and mentoring I received from my academic advisors at Bristol University was second to none – all of which made clear to me that higher education isn’t just about what you are taught, but how you are taught it and how this makes you feel.”

While in Bristol, William and his academic advisor Dr Jonathan Floyd began planning a new initiative to get political theory taught more widely in UK secondary schools; meeting with lords, MPs, educators and government officials to garner support for the scheme, which they hope to launch soon.

At Berkley, William is now investigating the origins of racialisation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He hopes to become a professor of Political Theory and Black Geographies before entering politics, where he wants to do more to normalise the success of underrepresented groups.

“I think above all, being an underrepresented demographic has made me aware of one thing: when you are really struggling you are a problem, or rather part of the ‘rule’, whereas when you have made it you are an inspiration, or ‘an exception to the rule’,” he said.

For years William felt his role at school was to stay quiet and let the ‘more intelligent’ pupils learn: “Mindsets can be as important as structures and institutions when it comes to young people struggling with specific learning differences and disabilities.”

His modest background – growing up in inner city London on free school meals – led to him being named one of the top 10 undergraduate students in the country at the UK Social Mobility Awards.

He said: “The fact that I, through luck and the support of others, ‘made it’ in-spite of social-economic barriers shouldn’t justify our system and society. Instead, it should challenge its core assumption – the false idea that those few who succeed are examples of a system working rather than a system in disrepair.

“I hope to spend my career first in academics, then in politics, turning this observation into actionable policies and politics.”

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