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Dealing with dyslexia: ‘It was clear to us Jack was very clever. He just wasn’t progressing in some areas’

Dyslexia affects up to one in 10 children, yet there are huge barriers to accessing assessments and support

Jack Doyle may only be 11 years old, but he already has his eyes on the prize. When asked what he is going to do when he is older, his answer is simple. “Probably play rugby for Ireland,” says Jack.

However, lifting winning cups for his local club in Clontarf is not the only thing Jack takes in his stride. Jack is dyslexic, but because of his insatiable appetite for problem-solving, combined with access to appropriate educational supports due to an early diagnosis, Jack is thriving at school – and at life in general.

“He’s very entrepreneurial,” says Ciarán Doyle, Jack’s father. “Every Christmas he sets up a new business to make a few quid for charity.”

It was Jack’s mother, Catherine McKenna, who suspected he might be dyslexic.


“Jack’s dyslexia journey probably started in Montessori,” says McKenna. “I think I was hyper-aware of the possibility of Jack being dyslexic because there was such a strong family history.”

McKenna’s suspicions were confirmed when he started his formal mainstream education. “It was clear to us that Jack was a very clever little boy, but he just wasn’t progressing in certain areas.”

They made things a lot easier for me, the books are dyslexia level, and the whole class is dyslexic – and that made it a lot easier

—  Jack Doyle on attending reading school

The teachers at Jack’s school agreed, but funding was not available for an in-school assessment. Jack’s parents, who both work in healthcare, were keenly aware of the benefits of early intervention and decided to seek out a private assessment.

“Ciarán and I are all about early intervention, and once the primary schoolteacher said ‘I think you’re on to something’, it was then all about embracing it and getting the supports in place,” says McKenna.

Jack was seven when he was assessed, and it revealed that he was severely dyslexic.

Following one of the main recommendations that came with the assessment, Jack was enrolled in Catherine McAuley reading school, which he attended for 3rd and 4th Class.

Reading schools are schools for children with significant dyslexia. They follow the regular curriculum, apart from Irish, and focus on literacy. They have smaller class sizes than mainstream schools, with the pupil-teacher ratio set at 9:1. While some schools have dedicated reading classes, there are only four reading schools in Ireland. As a result, they are hugely oversubscribed.

The two years Jack spent at the reading school were extremely beneficial and the tailored supports enabled him to properly access his education.

“They made things a lot easier for me, the books are dyslexia level, and the whole class is dyslexic – and that made it a lot easier,” says Jack.

Jack’s father says reading schools bring more than just an academic benefit to the students who attend.

“Once you get in there it’s like winning the golden ticket. There is positivity around bringing in past students who have excelled in certain areas,” he says, “and showing kids that dyslexia doesn’t have to hold them back; that, while it’s a challenge, there’s lots of avenues out there in life.”

Jack is now settling back into 5th Class in Belgrove Senior Boys’ national school in Clontarf, and, while challenges may exist, he now has the supports to overcome them. Jack’s family, along with the Dyslexia Association of Ireland (DAI), is now trying to highlight the right to access for those with dyslexia.

“We were fortunate enough to be in a position to remove certain barriers that other people may not be able to,” says Doyle. “We’re trying to promote the right to access in the first place just to get your name on the list, essentially, and see where the cards fall.”

While Jack’s experience has been one that showcases the merits of early intervention for those with dyslexia, there are all too many who have had to wait far too long for a diagnosis.

Rosie Bissett, chief executive of the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, agrees that teacher education is key to addressing the needs of dyslexic students. “We need to make sure that our teacher training colleges are teaching children to read in an evidence-based way,” says Bissett.

Another area Bissett would like to see addressed is an increase in access to State-funded educational assessments. “Parents are absolutely having to shore up an education system that is not meeting their child’s needs,” says Bisset. Some families are forced to approach charities such as St Vincent de Paul to help pay for private assessments.

There’s plenty of evidence to show that individuals with dyslexia have a significantly higher risk of depression and anxiety

—  Rosie Bissett, Dyslexia Association of Ireland

Her association reported that in 2015, only 26 per cent of dyslexia assessments were carried out in the public system. By 2022, this had dropped to just 14 per cent.

Access to an assessment is also thwarted by long waiting times, sometimes of up to two years.

Identity – as in, earlier identification of dyslexia – is another area that the association is trying to raise awareness around.

Bissett says that not giving people access or delaying their access to that identity has an impact on mental health. “There’s plenty of evidence to show that individuals with dyslexia have a significantly higher risk of depression and anxiety,” says Bisset, “especially if their needs were not identified early on and they didn’t get that support.”

While some can shy away from attaching a label to themselves or their child, Bissett says acceptance is something that should be embraced. “It’s often about taking away the negative terms that someone has said to them or that someone has told themselves, to know it’s not any of those awful things,” says Bissett. “Dyslexia is a neurological difference. Your brain works differently.”

Or as Jack Doyle describes it: “I like to say sometimes that dyslexia is not a disability, its just a different ability.”

‘I spent a lot of time at the back of the classroom, not knowing what the teacher was saying’

Timmy Long, The Two Norries podcaster, didn’t receive his dyslexia diagnosis until he was in his late 30s. His childhood experience of education is worlds apart from Jack Doyle’s.

“It was a very difficult time in life – I spent a lot of the time at the back of the classroom or outside the door, and just sitting there being lost not knowing what the teacher was saying,” says Long.

When I got that report handed to me, I actually started crying because that voice in my head that for so long had told me that I was no good, that I was stupid, slowly started to evaporate

—  Timmy Long, podcaster

He says this experience had a detrimental effect on his self-esteem. “I started to really internalise that mentality – that my brain was damaged, or I was just stupid.”

This negative self-perception escalated to the stage where Long started avoiding school altogether.

“It was awful, and it got the point that, when I was 11 or 12, I started going on the hop, hanging out on the streets and getting involved in antisocial behaviour,” says Long. “Eventually, the boredom starting to kick in and I began messing around with drugs.”

Long eventually ended up in prison. It was there that his real journey through education began. He learned to read and, later, started his college education. It was during his second year at college that he sought out an assessment. “I always felt that there was something wrong.”

The assessment revealed Long was dyslexic.

“When I got that report handed to me, I actually started crying because that voice in my head that for so long had told me that I was no good, that I was stupid, slowly started to evaporate,” he says.

While Long had a difficult experience of school, he adopts a forgiving view of school in the ‘80s. His focus is on the present system, on what can be done now over what should have been.

“There is no one to blame for it because these were times when we didn’t understand dyslexia,” says Long.

The starting point for change, according to Long, is ensuring that teachers are trained appropriately to cater for the needs of dyslexic students.

“Dyslexics and people with dyscalculia, we all learn differently, and it’s up to the education system in this country to find out what way we can educate these young people to meet their ability and meet their needs.”