Dyslexia

by Olive Hickmott and Andrew Bendefy

What does a manager need to know?

Given the statistics, you are bound to interact at work with dyslexic people, even if you do not know they are, or could be, labelled dyslexic.

There are some things that you do need to know, both from the management and the legal perspectives.

  • Dyslexics have very special skills, and they are all individual. Often they are great at being able to see different perspectives on a challenge you might face. Find out the skills your employee excels at and help them to maximise these – just as you would with any other employee.
  • Be familiar with the content of the Disability Discrimination Act.
  • Encourage your employee to check out their working environment. Dyslexics often have excellent peripheral vision and thus get distracted onto other tasks easily. Similarly, they may find it better to keep the contents of their desktop and filing system to a minimum.
  • Dyslexia is only one of a number of learning difficulties.
  • People are often embarrassed and unwilling to tell their employer. Many individuals think it singles them out and people will think they are stupid – this goes right to their personal identity.
  • You will find people with spelling and reading difficulties in every walk of life and at all levels of management.
  • Those with dyslexic tendencies are frequently found in careers involving skilled manual work – electricians, gas fitters, hairdressers, double glazing salesmen, the car industry, manufacturing and design. This is also true in caring roles, such as nursing, police, fire brigade or the social services, which people enter not expecting to do vast amounts of dreaded paperwork.

Disability Discrimination Act 1995

Disability legislation protects people with specific learning difficulties, such as dyslexia. Part 2 of the DDA focuses on employment and states that a person with a specific learning difficulty, such as dyslexia, should not be unfairly disadvantaged in terms of recruitment, conditions of employment, promotion and dismissal. This includes filling in application forms, interviews, proficiency tests, transfer or training opportunities, benefits, dismissal or redundancy. The DDA requires employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to reduce or remove any substantial disadvantage caused to a dyslexic person (employee or job applicant) by any of the employment arrangements in force. Examples of adjustments relevant to dyslexia:

  • Not being asked to write letters or notes if this is not a crucial aspect of the job
  • Allocating some duties to another person
  • Providing or arranging appropriate training
  • Modifying instructions or reference manuals
  • Modifying procedures for testing or assessment
  • Modifying equipment – for example, allowing the use of pastel-coloured paper rather than white
  • Recognising that a dyslexic may become inefficient under stress.

(Source: AGCAS Disability Development Network: Working with students and graduates with dyslexia, August 2003)

See the topic on Disability.

How can you help individuals?

If one of your team has difficulty with a task, you expect to be able to help them overcome it. It is your job as a manager to help people be productive and achieve at work and this applies equally to people with dyslexic symptoms.

There are some really simple ways to do this.

Firstly, create a safe and friendly environment where they will feel free to share their secret. People are often ashamed that they struggle with words because they (quite unnecessarily) feel this brands them as stupid. People have probably told them this in the past and they have simply believed it, so it has become part of them. Try and focus on the things they can do well and encourage them to share what they struggle with.

Identify

  • What are they passionate about? Why?
  • What do they really enjoy? Why?
  • What do they excel at? Why?
  • How can you maximise their potential by helping them focus on their strengths?
  • What sort of environment works best for them?

No two dyslexics are the same; each person will always have a different set of symptoms. Find out what it is like being your employee who is challenged by words. Find out what is easier for them to do and value the things they can do extremely well – that you may not be able to do.

Learn from Let’s try a little experiment.

  • Work with them to complete What is it like being you?, understanding exactly what their answers mean for them. Don’t just give them the form: work through the questions with them, so you really understand more about their experience.

Now you understand more about this person, see how you can help them give their best.

  • Try to map out what you want visually on a piece of paper or a flipchart, rather than barking out instructions, one after another; also, watch for signs of overload from too many requests.
  • Get the employee confident enough in you to tell you if you are getting them confused.
  • Help them get focused on priorities.
  • Read Seeing Spells Achieving; it will give you numerous insights into how individuals process information (See Want to know more?.)
  • Either take them through the exercises in this topic yourself or assign a colleague to do this, giving them time, space and support.
  • Help them try out which background colour on a computer screen works best, giving the clearest text, and then help them set their computer to use those preferences.
  • Be the manager who really makes a difference to this person’s performance – in every area of their life.