With diagnoses of dyslexia increasing rapidly in recent years, there is no doubt that the condition will touch every organisation in some way. The good news for employers is that the recruitment of a dyslexic worker is by no means disadvantageous to their company. If organisations are aware of the networks and resources available to support those affected, it is possible to unlock the potential creativity and unique way of thinking which could benefit both the employee and their employer.
Getting the figures right – How many people does dyslexia affect in the workplace?
It is estimated that 15 percent of the global population, therefore 9 million people in the UK, are affected by dyslexia and/or other Specific Learning Difficulties (SPLDs). This equates to around 4 million people coping with dyslexia in the workplace.
Specialist provision for this significant portion of society continues to improve in schools, with identification becoming more efficient, pupils receiving specialist one-one support and extra time allocated for written exams. However, I have often considered the potential difficulties faced by the dyslexic school leaver (or leaver of full-time education) as they attempt to adapt to their new environment. This period will be challenging for any young person but it is likely that the dyslexic employee will face extra barriers typically associated with SPLDs. In addition to the every-day stresses of working life, the dyslexic worker will have to cope with a new level of organisation, communication and time-management, with new expectations and deadlines to meet on a par with their colleagues.
In an ideal world, dyslexia will have been identified and intervention will have begun at an early age. Coping strategies will be well-practised enough that, by this period of transition, the condition can be largely controlled or even, in some cases, overcome. However, this will not have happened in every case. A thought must also be given to those who have not been formally diagnosed during their school careers and so have not been equipped with these coping techniques. Additionally, there will be a group who are fully aware of their condition but are fearful of the thankfully, fast-disappearing stigma of such diagnoses. They will attempt to get by without disclosing their status, in order to avoid potential discrimination in the workplace. These individuals tend to have developed compensatory strategies for each of their difficulties, making the underlying problem even harder to recognise.
Understanding the condition. What is dyslexia and what are its effects?
To assist an employee with dyslexia, it is important that an employer understands the syndrome of difficulties that are largely, but not exclusively, linked to challenges with the processing of both written and verbal language.
Most (but not all) diagnoses will be based on symptoms such as difficulties with spelling and reading, poor working memory, decreased organisational, time-management or motor control skills and problems with sequencing information, particularly on paper. Each issue can be severe or mild, and will co-exist in different combinations. For example, motor integration difficulties are often combined with visual processing difficulties.
It is now accepted that dyslexia is a difference in cognitive style rather than a defect and that the condition that could also bring unique strengths and benefits to the individual. These can include, but are not limited to, excellent three-dimensional visual thinking skills, creativity and artistic flair. The British Dyslexia Association (http://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/ ) explains the effects of dyslexia and SPLDs for employers in the following way:
“In simple terms, this means that individuals may process information differently; not necessarily better or worse, just differently. The term neuro-diversity is sometimes used to describe these different ways of thinking. To be a successful business or service provider, such neuro-diversity can be a significant asset to an organisation, bringing a different dimension to problem solving or creativity in the way that an organisation operates and delivers its products and/or services.”
What can the employer do? The help is out there:
The BDA recommend a workplace needs assessment to enable companies to support dyslexic employees. These can be obtained from Access to Work (https://www.gov.uk/access-to-work). An assessor will look at the specific role of the employee as an individual in the workplace as well as investigating the problems that may occur as a result of their dyslexia. They will also take into account the requirements and concerns of the company itself. The recommendations that result from these must be reasonable and realistic. They will probably include one or more of the following:
- No cost / low cost solutions – Such as allowing more time to read and complete tasks, giving verbal as well as written instructions or providing documents on coloured paper to suit the individual’s preferences.
- IT solutions – This can involve adopting strategies as simple as changing the background colour of a computer screen or using mind-mapping software to enlisting the help of assistive technology organisations such as texthelp (https://www.texthelp.com/en-gb/). There are more details on this support here (http://www.bataonline.org) (British Assistive Technology Association).
- Workplace strategy coaching – This is 1:1 coaching delivered by an expert and tailored to the specific needs of the worker. Example areas of focus can be in writing skills or time management.
- Awareness training for employers and colleagues – The BDA, and several other companies, offer a range of courses covering a variety of aspects to suit needs of each organisation.
Although not strictly required, for workplace recommendations to be put into place, a full diagnostic assessment of a dyslexic employee is recommended for the mutual benefit of both employer and employee. This works on the premise that a more detailed assessment will provide a more comprehensive understanding of the individual’s strengths and challenges which will inevitably lead to a better utilisation of their skills. It will also ensure that reasonable adjustments are properly tailored to the individual so that the organisation will not end up wasting money in the long run.
The creation of an environment in which preconceived ideas and misunderstandings concerning SPLDs are ‘debunked’ and discussed as openly as comfortable seems to be the most common-sensical and advantageous approach for all involved. Dyslexic workers need assurance that issues can be approached and constructively solved or managed with support from their employer. They should work in an ethos where they can be confident that disclosure of an SPLD will not bar employment nor progression.
The benefits will be invaluable for both parties, with the employee being enabled to work to their utmost potential and the employer being completely aware of the area in which the individual can work most effectively, whilst ensuring that they are fulfilling their responsibilities under the Equality Act.
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