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Dyslexia in the workplace – Turning a Problem into an Opportunity

© Richard Whitehead, 2009.

Six years ago, I met a young dyslexic woman who had previously been employed in a responsible management position in a large corporation.

She told me of a colleague who was gay, and who one day had plucked up courage to “come out” and tell his immediate colleagues about his sexual orientation.

“Now believe it or not,” said the young woman, “I found it harder to ‘come out’ in the workplace as having dyslexia, than this person did to ‘come out’ as being gay.”

Since the time when I met this lady, dyslexia has been brought under the Disabilities Discrimination Act, thereby affording additional legal protection to dyslexics in the workplace.

But nonetheless, the workplace has not yet become a comfortable environment to be dyslexic in. Only a year and a half ago, I conducted a telephone consultation with a man in his thirties who worked as a foreman in a construction company. He had severe dyslexic difficulties with reading and writing. And none of his colleagues knew.

He had kept the fact secret for all of his working life. Every morning, an email would arrive from head office with the team’s instructions for the day. The foreman was supposed to stand up at the beginning of the day and read the instructions out to the team. So this man would arrive at work in time to pore laboriously over the words of the email; then at the morning meeting with his team he would stand up and say, “Right, team – I’m not going to bore you with all the detail in this; here’s the general gist.”

But the cost to him of hiding his dyslexia had been immense. He told me that he had been on sleeping tablets for several years because he would wake from a recurring nightmare about everyone at work finding out he couldn’t read or write.

Now from the employer’s perspective, this is terrifying. Most employers are probably aware of their responsibility under the Disabilities Discrimination Act to provide reasonable adjustments in the workplace to support dyslexic staff. But who supports the supporters? Where can employers and line managers go to know how to adjust the workplace environment so that dyslexic employees can, first, feel comfortable to speak openly about their dyslexia, and secondly, achieve for you their employer to their maximum potential?

Well, here are some ideas and tips that are not difficult to implement and can make a major difference.

First, outlaw any form of anti-dyslexic discrimination. It isn’t acceptable any more to make jokes about different racial origins or sexual orientation. But bizarrely, jokes about dyslexia are still considered harmless in many areas of society. The fact that some of your dyslexic employees may be OK with them is beside the point. For others, they may do additional damage to a dyslexic person’s already vulnerable self-esteem. So consider making jokes about learning problems a disciplinary offence.

Secondly, do a bit of research into differing thinking styles and/or encourage your line managers and HR team to do so. Focus on some of the many books or Internet resources that you can find that deal with multiple intelligences, visual-spatial learning styles, and the positive aspects of the dyslexic way of thinking. Research in schools suggests that, when teaching is adapted to the dyslexic way of thinking, non-dyslexic pupils benefit as well. It is likely that your research into the different ways in which people learn will enrich your company’s HR policy in many unexpected ways well beyond simply providing support to your dyslexic employees.

Thirdly, foster a culture in the workplace where it is OK to be yourself, as long as you are doing your best. Make sure that in your work culture it is OK to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them. Reward or praise staff and managers for being open about mistakes when they make them. Consider holding a staff training session where staff are encouraged to discuss the things in life that they find easy, and the things that they find difficult. Keep the session light-hearted and use it to promote awareness of how members of staff can support each other as a team.

Fourthly, foster a low-stress working culture. People will typically perform well when they feel relaxed and secure, and badly when they feel stressed or under threat. With a dyslexic employee, the difference in performance levels is likely to be much more dramatic than with your non-dyslexic employees. So make sure that line managers are themselves working with discipline and planning ahead to avoid last-minute urgent tasks as much as possible. Consider finding a simple technique for brief relaxation and stress removal and giving it to your staff at a training session. In a computer-based workplace, consider setting up timed reminders on your staff’s computers to take breaks and/or check their relaxation.

Fifthly, wherever possible, adapt your working procedures to minimise challenges to dyslexic staff. For example, in an office environment, make use of mailmerge functions and/or postcode-search technology to minimise the need for retyping names and addresses. This is the commonest area where spelling errors can surface because names and addresses are not addressed by spellchecking software. Ensure that your filing system is as ordered and logical as possible, and your systems are as simple as possible. It goes without saying that this will be to the benefit of all your staff, not just your dyslexic colleagues. Also, ensure that instructions are communicated clearly, either orally or via email, avoiding handwritten notes unless they are brief ones.

Sixthly, for some staff you may consider some additional support. Dyslexics are not learning-disabled; many learn to read and write quite fluently, and in cases where they haven’t, it is often because the style in which they were taught didn’t match the style in which they think and learn. So if budgets permit, consider investing in some specialist one-to-one support to build up core literacy and/or numeracy skills for those of your dyslexic staff who may benefit from this. There is also a range of support software available such as voice-to-text, text-to-speech and mindmapping software that can take the sting out of challenging tasks to do with literacy and/or mental organisation.

And last but not least, keep in mind that your dyslexic employee is likely to have unusual abilities as well as challenges. Many dyslexic thinkers excel in areas such as lateral thinking, sales ability, systems design and graphic design. Once you have some simple and inexpensive procedures in place to support your dyslexic staff, it is likely that your business will benefit from having some dyslexic staff in ways that would be denied you if all your staff were conventional non-dyslexic thinkers.

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