Dyslexia – A Strength at Work?

Dyslexia – a strength that when nurtured and supported – can bring many benefits to the workforce

As people go through the education system as dyslexics, the demon question would often be: ‘Why? Why can’t we keep up in class and grasp things as quickly as Johnny across the aisle? Why do we have these great ideas we don’t get down on paper fast enough? Why are we misreading certain words and have the most difficulty spelling others?’

But the bottom line is, we know deep down, that notwithstanding the apparent learning – I like to call them differences – we are far from stupid.

Approximately 15% of the global population (about 9 million people in the UK alone) have Dyslexia and/or other Specific Learning Difficulties. These are the figures given by the British Dyslexia Association.

Naturally this issue is not contained in the UK. Dyslexic Scientific America reckons that 20% of all school children are dyslexic. And what is more, this is not something they will be ‘growing out of’ anytime soon.

Dyslexia is one of the invisible disabilities recognised under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA), which of course means there are implications for the employee and the employer.

The fact of the matter is that one way or another a whole lot of people are dealing with this every day. Many of us who went through the traditional educational system would have seen the idea of being dyslexic as the deep mark of shame. 

Back in the day, dyslexia was just a label given to people who had difficulty reading. Spelling would be difficult and letters and numbers would be transposed. People would talk about ‘letters dancing off the page’.

According to the experts, the characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed.

Simply put, it takes the dyslexic longer to process and remember information. Phonological weakness – a difficulty with learning the correspondence between sounds and sequences of sounds – is another cognitive deficit that results in dyslexia. One way of looking at it could be not being able to get across the room to access the right files fast enough and then remember what you have accessed to make any sense out of it all.

Even in the last ten years there has been a massive increase in awareness of dyslexia in the classroom, and this has percolated through to the workplace. What is even better is that there is now a movement to flag up the beauty of dyslexia rather than the curse. Gone is the tendency to lump the pejorative terms such as such as ‘thick’ and ‘silly’ and in comes the more flattering adjectives such as ‘gifted’ and ‘hidden potential’.

Many people with dyslexia have unusually strong visual, creative and problem-solving skills.  Sam, a recently diagnosed adult dyslexic, described it as being a bit like a sea gull soaring over the land seeing the solutions to issues but not being sure of the steps taken to get there. Josie, a junior graphic designer, would say her talent is thinking outside the box. 

A bit like that old saying about business that you get the clients you deserve, dyslexics will gravitate towards industries that suit their skills. Some may see this as opting for the path of least resistance – choosing the subjects they can excel in. Many designers and entrepreneurs are dyslexic and amazing at coming up with creative solutions. However, that still leaves a whole lot of people in the workplace dealing with the daily rigours of the rules and disappointments of mistakes and underperformance. 

And then there is what is referred to as the increased likelihood of the dyslexia nestling alongside other specific learning differences. The Dyspraxia Foundation reckons that half the dyslexic population with have dyspraxia too – affecting organisation, forgetting, losing things. None of this an ideal combination for the rigours of the mainstream workplace where attention to detail is essential and written abilities are seen as imperative to maintaining many roles.

However, with this number of people diagnosed with dyslexia, what can be done to accommodate this essential talent?

A considerable amount, it turns out. If the employer applies a little imagination, plenty of understanding and a whole load of common sense, the world of the dyslexic employee could a whole lot better.

ACAS talks about making reasonable adjustments. Sensibly it has pointed out that a reasonable adjustment within a multinational is quite different to that of a small firm.

It is cruel to ask a dyslexic person to take minutes; form filling is a nightmare and reading charts, diagrams and spreadsheets often-mental torture. Allocate these tasks to those that relish this level of detail. This will save your neurodiverse employee from the anxiety of detail and short term memory loss and the humiliation of being set up to fail.

The British Dyslexia Association gives the following suggestions for reasonable adjustments.

Verbal rather than written instructions, 

Use voicemail rather than email 

Provide screen reading software

Coloured backgrounds on the PC

Use assistive programs such as text to speech

Be mindful and sympathetic to deadlines and send reminders

Provide a smart pen

Spell checkers a must

Give instructions singularly 

Suggest working in a quiet location

Check that instructions have been understood and comprehended

Finally, a dyslexic person has probably arrived in the workplace with an ingrained esteem problem and confusion about their abilities – they know they have abilities but have faced huge challenges getting them recognised in school and work. These setbacks and the ability to overcome them are in themselves strengths.

Your dyslexic employee, with the right support and harnessing of the right skills, is able to soar to performative heights previously never imagined. Embracing and including can and will make a whole load of difference in the workplace to all concerned. The talent and ability is there – it just needs tender care and appreciation.

Further reading 

Dyslexia in the Workplace: An Introductory Guide

By Diana Bartlett, Sylvia Moody, Katherine Kindersley