Dyslexia is a condition affecting 10-15% of the UK population – roughly nine million people. That’s around the same number as those who are left-handed. Dyslexia is a form of neurodiversity – a term used to describe those with neurological differences such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, autistic spectrum, or those who have several overlapping or co-occurring differences. Like most neurological differences, dyslexia affects each individual differently and with varying degrees of severity – no two dyslexic people will have exactly the same needs, strengths and weaknesses.
My “mild” dyslexia was diagnosed at a relatively young age and made learning to read and write more challenging than for my peers. It manifests itself most noticeably in my handwriting; to this day I struggle to write by hand, and it can quickly cause pain and become stressful. My unusual writing style (I turn the page around and write upwards) looks odd and people often comment – I don’t mind and am happy to discuss it but depending on the circumstance it can feel uncomfortable.
I am also left-handed, and the combination of these challenges made early schooling a difficult experience. At the time of my diagnosis in the mid-1980s, teachers were not equipped with as much knowledge, support, or technology as today and I was left to largely fend for myself. As a result, my ability to successfully engage with school was severely hindered, and by the time I left to enter the working world, I was unprepared, underqualified, and unconfident.
Modern workplaces can act as enablers
Technology breaks down barriers for me these days. I learnt to write properly post-school on a computer, where my passion for the written word could be fulfilled without hindrance and the spellcheck became my teacher. Word processing has now never been better and communications tools such as Microsoft Teams provide a whole host of solutions – automated meeting transcriptions stop the need for notetaking or recording on a separate device for later transcription, for example.
Working in a diverse and inclusive culture that creates opportunities to develop is vital in creating a space for someone with dyslexia to flourish. In the past, I rarely if ever mentioned my dyslexia to work colleagues, in fact, I’m sure many of them aren’t aware of it at all. That has not necessarily been to do with me feeling uncomfortable admitting to it or feeling like I will be judged in any way, but because I don’t encounter any barriers to doing my job and feel comfortable being myself at work. Meanwhile supportive line management, flexible working arrangements, and meaningful development opportunities have allowed me to complete a master’s degree in my own time, alongside honing my writing and editing skills in the workplace.
Dyslexia can create difficulties, but it can also create solutions. Most dyslexic people will have spent their lives creating their own methods and solutions to the challenges they encounter. A dyslexic person may also have a more unusual career path behind them – learning differences can cause issues with school engagement, which in turn can result in less conventional career journeys and a preference to adult education – something hiring managers should be open to and not look upon as a negative.
Diverse and inclusive workplaces perform better, have higher employee satisfaction, and increased financial returns. Diversity of people brings diversity of thought which in turn brings better innovation. And diversity of thought is exactly what a dyslexic or neurodivergent individual will bring to a workforce.
What can businesses do?
The law requires employers to make reasonable adjustments for someone with a disability, which often includes neurodiverse individuals. But beyond the legal requirement, raising awareness of neurodiversity in the workplace is about creating a work environment and a culture in which everyone feels welcome and can be themselves. Neurodiverse people can introduce new ways of thinking and approaching situations that can create a positive, fresh new mindset in the workforce.
Creating a dyslexia-friendly workplace may require some adjustments – companies need to think about changes to the recruitment process through to progression and access to promotions so that neurodiverse people are assessed fairly, and their strengths recognised. They could provide training to support managers and give more choice to employees about how they carry out tasks since everyone works best in a different way. It can also include providing assistive technology or changing communication methods such as printing company-wide information on different coloured paper, or in a larger font, or making it available as an audio file.
This year the CBI launched a brand-new employee network – the Health and Neurodiversity & Disability forum (HAND), which I am happy to have become a co-chair of. HAND provides a safe space to discuss issues around health and enact change within the organisation – and sits alongside existing employee networks. Employee networks provide support and allyship which they can rely on to feel comfortable being themselves at work. They also help to educate the wider organisation to understand how to support individual needs and adjustments.
Workplaces in which people can belong regardless of difference is a fundamental component of any diversity and inclusion strategy. People perform better when they can bring their true selves and work without fear of prejudice. It is exactly environments like this in which people with dyslexia can feel comfortable and have the space to innovate and create.