Torment or talent? Managing dyslexics in the workplace

More awareness of dyslexia in the classroom is filtering through to the workplace – and the condition can be a creative bonus for employers rather than a curse

Around 15 per cent of the global population are dyslexic. According to the British Dyslexia Association, 9 million people in the UK have dyslexia or another specific learning difference, while Dyslexic Scientific America reckons that 20 per cent of all US school children are dyslexic. What’s more, this is not something they will be ‘growing out of’ anytime soon.

The scale of dyslexia has an impact on managing the workforce, as it is one of the invisible disabilities covered by disability discrimination legislation on both sides of the Atlantic. This means there are implications for both employer and the employee.

Cognitive barrier

Dyslexia was originally just a label given to people who had difficulty reading. Spelling would be difficult, and letters and numbers transposed. People with the condition would talk about ‘letters dancing off the page’.

According to the experts, the characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness (a difficulty with learning the correspondence between sounds and sequences of sounds), verbal memory and verbal processing speed. Simply put, it takes the dyslexic longer to process and remember information.

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 positive aspects of dyslexia rather than the curse. Gone is the tendency to lump in the pejorative terms such as ‘thick’ and ‘stupid and in comes the more flattering adjectives such as ‘gifted’ and ‘hidden potential’.

Problem-solving skills

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

Many dyslexics will gravitate towards those industries that suit their skills. Some may see this as opting for the path of least resistance – choosing the areas in which they can excel. 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 disappointments of mistakes and underperformance.

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 have dyspraxia too – this affects organisation and it is hardly an ideal combination for the rigours of the mainstream workplace where attention to detail is essential and written abilities are seen as imperative to maintain many executive positions.

Making reasonable adjustments

So, what can be done to accommodate the essential talent of people diagnosed with dyslexia? 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 can be made a whole lot better.

It is all about making reasonable adjustments. Avoid asking a dyslexic person to take minutes, for example. Form filling can be a nightmare and reading charts, diagrams and spread sheets often mental torture. Allocate these tasks to those that relish this level of detail. This will save your neuro-diverse employee from the anxiety of detail and short-term memory loss – and the humiliation of being set up to fail.

The Dyslexia Association in the UK gives the following suggestions for reasonable adjustments.

  • Give verbal rather than written instructions
  • Use voicemail rather than email
  • Provide screen reading software
  • Use coloured backgrounds on the computer
  • Use assistive programs such as text to speech
  • Be mindful and sympathetic to deadlines, adjust if possible and send reminders
  • Provide a smart pen
  • Provide a spell checkers
  • Give instructions singularly
  • Suggest working in a quiet location
  • Check that instructions have been fully understood

Finally, a dyslexic person may well have arrived in the workplace with ingrained esteem issues and confusion about their abilities. They will have faced huge challenges getting recognition in the traditional worlds of school and employment. Their ability to overcome these barriers is in itself a strength.

‘Arriving in the workplace with ingrained esteem issues…’

With the right support and harnessing of their skills, they are capable of soaring to levels of performance never previously imagined. A more empathic and inclusive approach at work can make all the different – it just needs care and appreciation to bring out the talent.

Wendy Smith is the founder and director of Coralstone Training, which specialises in working with people with cognitive differences on soft skills for the workplace. Further reading: Dyslexia in the Workplace: An Introductory Guide by Diana Bartlett, Sylvia Moody, Katherine Kindersley (2010)