What is normal anyway? Supporting equality and diversity

By Ksenia Nikolaeva, Nguyen Tuan Tu and Carol Witney

Ksenia Nikolaeva is an alumnus of RMIT International University Vietnam and a PhD candidate in Computational Biology and Innovation. Nguyen Tuan Tu is a student  in the Bachelor of Business Information Systems program at RMIT Vietnam. Carol Witney is a Learning Advisor in the LSU.


My first thought was “No, it’s impossible, I can’t be a dyslexic!!!!!”  Dyslexics, they are people like Einstein or Leonardo Da Vinci, but I’m probably what all of my Russian Language teachers would say, just lazy, daft and ignorant about my native language. So, naturally, I should be ashamed of myself. “How dare you! Russian is the language of Pushkin and Tolstoy. You just need to learn it thoroughly, read more!!!! read every day!!!!” and every summer holiday without fail, along with every other kid I would get it – the list of books that I had to read during the summer, which normally was more than 20 books, and I would promise myself – I would read every day, but inevitably, after 2 pages I would give up! I would read 2 or 3 books of my interest instead, and the next school year I would have to endure their comments about myself. I don’t know how I managed to make it through 11 years of school, but after my final combo exam – Russian &Russian Literature, I promised myself I would never ever again even touch a book except for science!!!!! I kept my promise for 3 years, and then something happened and I started to read, and I loved it because I read only books I liked. 

However, the most remarkable thing happened to me after almost 10 years since I graduated from my high school. Just after I took my first IELTS exam, I decided to reveal my secret to my previous/old teacher and best friend – that I can’t remember how to spell words in any language, and no matter how hard I tried to learn them by heart, after a while they are gone and I would never be able to get a high score on IELTS as I’m useless. But my friend’s reply was shocking – “You are probably Dyslexic. Go and check online. There are a number of online screening tests for Dyslexia.” And so I did, and then I was diagnosed with Dyslexia by an educational psychologist in Ho Chi Minh.

It’s almost  2 years since that assessment, and I know for sure I’m not daft and definitely not lazy cos I worked harder than normal people, every day of my life was a struggle as dyslexia is not just slow reading or spelling, it really effects all aspects of your life (for example, when you’re filling out the form in the bank or writing a letter, when you simply have no idea where is left and right until you think about the hand you write with, when you truly believe that your flight is at 10 05 am and it turns out that it’s actually the number of your flight). Despite all the difficulties, I don’t feel that I am disabled – quite the opposite – I feel I am gifted. I know now what my limitations are and I know how to overcome them.


I was born with a visual impairment that over the years has gotten worse.  After a visit to the optometrist at FV hospital five years ago, I threw away my glasses. The specialist told me that there’s nothing wrong with my eyes – it’s my optic nerve, and current technology could not help – maybe I’d be lucky in a few years’ time.

After graduating high school, I wanted to enter National University, but was denied for two main reasons; firstly, they thought that I wouldn’t be able to follow other students and keep up with the lectures, and secondly, they were very honest in saying that they didn’t have the expertise, resources and facilities to teach me properly.

A private Vietnamese university also gave me the same response as above, and a further enquiry to another National University by my mum was met with the response that I needed to apply through the Ministry of Education because I have a visual impairment.

Basically, I was told that I could go to one of the teaching universities, but I’d only be able to teach students with disabilities once I graduated.

Despite the challenges that I’ve faced in my life, I consider myself to be extremely lucky – lucky that I was able to go through the education system with people of my own age, lucky I had extra English classes with native speakers from the Loretto Foundation, lucky I didn’t get into National Uni, and lucky that I got into the English programme at RMIT, lucky I met the admin lady, Oanh, in building 8 who sent me to Phoenix, who referred me through to the LSU, lucky for my English teachers – Rheanne, Alan, Amy and Liz and lucky for having a mother who firmly believes that I should be using my brain and not my hands, and who keeps me in line……

(Tu is also very modest – he doesn’t take credit for the enormous amount of work/perseverance that he put into his English studies – studying in class four hours a day, and then coming to the LSU for a further 2-3 hours in the afternoon, 5 days a week the 20 weeks needed to pass Level 6 and Level 7)

Ksenia recently took her 2nd IELTS with the British Council, and armed with her assessment she was able to secure extra time and use of her laptop (she wasn’t allowed to use spell check, though and this is one of her major weaknesses) – 9.0 reading, 8.0 listening, 8.5 writing, 8.5 speaking COMPARED with her 1st IELTS 6.0 reading, 6.5 writing, 8.0 listening, 8.5 speaking.  Of course, when marking the listening paper, the assessors have to consider spelling errors, and Ksenia is pretty sure that this accounted for loss of marks.

The point here is that because she had a diagnosis, she was able to negotiate a ‘fairer’ assessment with the British Council. We could argue that time has passed or she was more mature and better prepared to take the IELTS, but Ksenia and I both know that it’s because she had been diagnosed with dyslexia and had a very clear understanding of her particular situation, and how she processes information.

Ksenia and Tu are not the only students on campus that may need extra support. If a person has a physical impairment, it is generally more obvious to people, but a Specific Learning Difficulty (SpLD) isn’t, not in the mother tongue or a second language. We are now at the point where we need to be able to discuss how we are going to meet the needs of our many diverse learners, using language that places the emphasis on the learner, rather than ‘their problem’, as well as developing an awareness of our own perceptions around disabilities.

Tu’s presence on campus has enabled RMIT to start looking at policies/systems that need to be in place in order to give opportunities to the students who need more support – where feasible. The Learning Skills Unit and Well Being and Counselling Services have recently engaged in dialogue with two very good organisations in Ho Chi Minh. The first one is the Disability Resource and Development centre (DRD) in Ho Chi Minh City. Established in 2005, and funded by the Ford Foundation, people with disabilities (PWD’s) and members of the HCMC Open University Sociology Department are collaborating to ‘enhance the full participation of and equal opportunities for PWD’s by raising awareness and capacity building’  www.drdvietnam.com.

Huynh Ngoc Bich and Nguyen Thanh Tung from DRD visited HCM campus and gave a presentation to over 50 faculty members on issues affecting people with disabilities, along with advice and recommendations. It is hoped that DRD will be able to provide training to all levels of staff at RMIT to ensure a commitment to inclusive practice, equality and diversity. It is also a valuable opportunity to for RMIT to create a new, rich, network of links and friendships within the community.

The second organisation is Learning Strategies based in Ho Chi Minh, which provides assessments and individualised intervention programmes for children and adolescents experiencing academic, social, language, or behavioural difficulties as well as children with autism and related developmental delays (Asperger’s Syndrome, PDD, Down’s Syndrome, ADD, AD/HD). It is hoped that we can gain support to develop services and support for SpLD’s, in particular dyslexia. www.learning-strategies.org

Tu and Ksenia have given a brief set of recommendations below as to how the university could help them transition more smoothly and ensure their needs are being met in a fair way.

Lessons learned so far:

  • Talk to me, not my disability!
  • Use appropriate language to describe my situation
  • Have a point of contact – an individual on campus with training to support needs
  • Help with orientation on campus. Learning how to get around the campus takes time and needs to be done before the semester begins
  • Need longer to read materials
  • Need particular software such as ZoomText
  • Need assistance with library searches
  • Need to record lectures
  • Need screening facilities for SpLD

How can lecturers help?

  • Identify core readings before the beginning of the semester/help students identify key chapters
  • Give lecture notes/slides in advance
  • Email writing feedback
  • Be mindful of dynamics in group work
  • Provide more time in exams
  • Allow students with dyslexia to use laptops to type essay questions
  • Provide fair and appropriate assessments with clear criteria

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9 responses to “What is normal anyway? Supporting equality and diversity”

  1. Cheryl Erwin says :

    What an inspirational article! I think it is wonderful that these two students have been so transparent in sharing their difficult personal journeys of learning. I am so thankful that there are organizations as decribed in Ho Chi MInh City with which to help students with learning disabilities.

    Learning Strategies was a HUGE blessing in helping my youngest son with his learning disabilities. We didn’t learn until he was 8 and 1/2 that he was born with Arnold-Chiari Type I Malformation in which the hindbrain is too large for the skull.(This diagnosis was made after he experienced a grand mal seizure.) After the necessary neurosurgery was done a few weeks later in the fall of 1992, his recovery began. He was placed in Learning Disability classes in public school. The teachers were doing everything they could to help him but he was still having great difficulty.

    In the spring of 1995, I looked for a well known advertised company in the Yellow pages but instead found Learning Strategies. I contacted the specialist for an evaluation. The results and her explanation were so enlightening and explained the root causes for his learning difficulties For the next 3 and 1/2 years, I took him to see her for neurophysiolgoical therapy weekly. We did assigned exercises daily at home. Today, nearly twenty years after his diagnosis, he is living independently, able to drive a car, and has a full-time job at which he is able to do very well. I will always believe if it had not been for Learning Strategies and the commitment of Nancy, my son Jonathan DeBrot would not be living the life he is able to live today.

    Yes, Jonathan of Topeka, Kansas is the proud brother of David DeBrot and I am Cheryl DeBrot-Erwin, the proud Mother of each of them, now of Nicholasville, Kentucky.THANK YOU again for seeing that this article was written and shared for your readership worldwide.

    • Carol Witney says :

      Hi Cheryl,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences with us. The two students who wrote this article are pretty amazing! I’ve watched both of them overcome enormous difficulties, particularly in relation to their education. Both are from countries where access to organisations like Learning Strategies and the DRD was non-existent in their formative years and it hasn’t been until recently that both have been able to get the support that they’ve really needed.
      Ksenia will be going on to study a Masters/Phd programme in Europe and Tu has received an HD for his first assignment.

      Progress is being made at the University and in the community to help provide support and opportunities for young people here – it’s really exciting to see how much people grow and develop.

      • Cheryl Erwin says :

        How great to know what opportunities are happening for both of these students. Thanks so much Carol for letting us know! Sincerely, Cheryl Erwin

  2. Jacqui Langton says :

    A really interesting and timely article. Great to hear from our students in order to gain feedback about their needs. Inspired by some of the amazing hard work the students put into their studies and the people who support that.

  3. Mark Hershey says :

    Excellent article, wonderfully illustrated. I used to work with people with so-called “developmental diabilities” – these were people with downs syndrome, autism, aspergers, etc. Some had other physical limitations, such as deafness. Some had mental illnesses. After awhile, I noticed that these conditions weren’t black and white – that people were not either “normal” or “developmentally disabled” but that “normalcy” lies on a spectrum and/or that while someone might seem abnormal in some ways they could be just as normal in other ways. Also, as the the students demonstrated here, simply because you lack in one ability in one area, does not mean that you are limited in others. In fact, you might really shine in other areas. One of my clients could balance his checkbook faster than any of the staff could. In short, thanks for raising awareness on this important topic – we’ve got to stop stigmatizing differences.

  4. Rheanne Anderson says :

    Having had the pleasure of actually working with Tu, I can say that his experience has affected me deeply in many ways. Although each of his English teachers had to adapt and in many cases do extra work to give him the kind of instruction and feedback that would help him succeed, I know that none of us regretted that extra time spent marking or the extra effort. Quite the opposite, in fact. It was wonderful to begin to look at what we teach every day in new ways. It was such a unique learning opportunity to challenge our own practice. And it was a gift professionally to be able to cooperate more with our own colleagues in the English Dept but also with the LSU (who offered invaluable support not only to Tu but also to his teachers).

    My personal experience with Tu let me see my whole class in a new light – his articulate, humorous and unfailingly polite attitude in class brought us all to a higher level of understanding. And I’m not just talking about the content of the course. He inspired his classmates to work harder themselves, and I’m sure the day-in day-out support of his classmates helped him as well. His teachers here in the English department wish him the best of luck – but the thing about Tu is, he doesn’t really need luck. He has something better: drive, determination and passion. And I think there’s a lot that we could all learn from that – not just physically challenged students, but able bodied students and all teachers alike.

  5. Loc - Librarian says :

    Thank you Ksenia, Tu, and Carol for this inspirational post. Wish you all the best in life.

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