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Dyslexia at work: Realising your employees’ potential

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Dyslexia in the workplaceDr Andi Sanderson answers key questions on dyslexia and provides advice to employers on the best ways to create a dyslexia-friendly workplace and to ensure you are meeting key disability legislation.


Sir Richard Branson, Albert Einstein, Jamie Oliver – all famous names we’ve come to associate as innovators and strong leaders, but did you know that they are all dyslexic? As many as one in 10 people in the UK workforce have dyslexia, a neurological disorder affecting a person’s reading, writing and spelling skills, but many companies are still unaware of the impact this disability can have on an employee’s job or how to realise their potential.

What is dyslexia and what signs would I recognise?

Dyslexia is a learning disability which impacts on a person’s reading, writing and spelling. Completely unlinked to intelligence, this disability can be incredibly frustrating for a person, particularly as the skills it affects are so fundamental in the workplace. Many dyslexics are innovative, strong leaders, and work very well in teams so can be a real asset to an organisation. Dyslexia is often referred to as a ‘hidden disability’ as there are no visible physical signs which frequently results in workers concealing their dyslexia or being unaware of it and so being judged unfairly.

“Many dyslexics are innovative, strong leaders, and work very well in teams so can be a real asset to an organisation.”

Dyslexia affects people in different ways, depending on the severity but signs to look out for in your employees include inconsistent spelling, poor time-keeping, difficulties understanding directions and/or disorganised workspace. Due to the challenges which dyslexics face in their daily job, there may also be less obvious indicators such as an employee passing up on a promotion due to extra paperwork, or reporting in sick as they are struggling to work in an open-plan office.

For an employer, there are different screening techniques which can be put in place to spot dyslexia, either at interview stage with new employees, or at an appropriate point with existing staff. A simple way to identify dyslexia in existing staff members is to offer a short screening test via your intranet, where employees can take part if and when they like. This is particularly effective for identifying people who have previously been reluctant to be open about their condition, or those who suspect they might be dyslexic but have yet to be diagnosed.

Once employees have been identified as potentially dyslexic, I would recommend a more in-depth, one-on-one diagnostic assessment to ascertain where they struggle in their job and how they can be better supported.

What is required in order to support dyslexic employees?

The Disability Discrimination Act has been introduced to prevent disabled people being treated less fairly than their able-bodied peers, so it is more important than ever that employers provide the correct support. If your company is publicly funded, a three-year rolling programme should already be in place to address and eliminate discrimination of disabilities; however, private organisations are not yet required to do this. Expectation is that by 2009, this will be reviewed for the private sector also.

“In relation to dyslexia, it is now unlawful, for example, for an employer to discriminate against a current or prospective employee on the basis of their condition.”

In relation to dyslexia, it is now unlawful, for example, for an employer to discriminate against a current or prospective employee on the basis of their condition. In particular, employers are required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to enable dyslexic employees to undertake their work effectively. These reasonable adjustments apply wherever any ‘physical feature’ of the workplace or any ‘arrangements’ made by or on behalf of the employer substantially disadvantage a disabled person.

How do I approach an employee I suspect is dyslexic?

It is very important that if you suspect an employee is dyslexic, they are approached before aspects of their work result in performance management issues. You should discuss with them that you have noticed the kinds of errors in their work that have some of the characteristics of dyslexia and reassure them that if they are dyslexic, the company can put systems in place to support them and make their job easier. You should then offer them a screening test and further to that, a diagnostic assessment to identify their individual needs.

How do I correctly address an employee with this condition?

The way in which people prefer to be referred to varies and is personal to the individual. Have an open, informal chat with them to ascertain what makes them the most comfortable. Often, older staff who have been diagnosed with dyslexia at a later stage in their lives may have different perceptions of their condition than young team members who are likely to have been diagnosed whilst at school. With this in mind, an initial conversation should be handled with sensitivity.

It is also important to discuss with them how they would like their condition addressed with other members of staff; whether they wish you to discuss it with their team or keep it private.

What reasonable adjustments can I make to my company to ensure we are dyslexia-friendly?

Training

There are different types of training that you can implement in your company to help support dyslexic employees. Types of training you could consider, which should always be carried out by dyslexia specialists, include:


  • Creating the right work environment, including a review of physical working conditions.

  • Individual workplace strategies for your dyslexic employees – this can be as simple as employing a dyslexia specialist to sit with your employee for several sessions to discuss how to make certain work processes work for them e.g. to-do lists, prioritising jobs, colour coding etc.

  • Coaching managers in how to work with dyslexic individuals through recruitment and training. For example, dyslexia-awareness seminars for line managers are very effective and ensure that they know how to get best from their staff.

  • Getting the most out of assistive technology and software in the workplace.

Assistive technology

Technology has had an enormous impact on dyslexic people as it removes many barriers to learning. It makes them more independent in their job and alleviates many difficulties with reading, writing, organisation and memory skills. Most important of all, your employee can achieve immediate success which builds confidence. Detailed below are just some examples of areas which dyslexic people often struggle with and how assistive technologies can help.

  • Reading:
  • Many dyslexic people cannot access material on the internet due to poor literacy levels. Text to speech software reads text back in a real-speak voice at a speed of their choice. Pages of text can be scanned in and read back in the same way. This software is also useful for proof-reading.

  • Written work:
  • An onscreen word bank containing subject specific vocabulary can be helpful. One click on the word/phrase enters it into the text. This reduces keyboard strokes and allows the writing process to continue unhindered by spelling difficulties and slow typing. A right click allows the word/phrase to be spoken so is also useful for word recognition.

    “Technology has had an enormous impact on dyslexic people as it removes many barriers to learning.”

    Predictive software suggests a list of the most common words following an initial keystroke. If an employee types ‘b’, a list of common words beginning with ‘b’ appears in the predictor window. The person can have the word spoken before entering it into the text using a single mouse click. Such software enables dyslexics with significant spelling difficulties to write extensively using appropriate vocabulary.

    Voice recognition software can be useful for some dyslexics who are articulate and express themselves well verbally. Having their spoken words converted to type enables them to get their ideas down quickly. The software is compatible with most applications and they can control the computer, including browsing the web and sending emails by using voice commands.

  • Memory skills:
  • Personal organisers can assist with planning on a daily and weekly basis. For those requiring verbal prompts, a digital recorder can be useful. This is also a quick means of recording tasks and deadlines. The digital recorder, especially when used with software to reference and manage recordings, takes the pain out of note taking and removes the need to trawl back through hours of recorded speech. When used with an external microphone, a digital recorder can record parts of a meeting or conference which can be particularly useful for employees with processing difficulties who need to listen to the information several times.

    What funding is available to help cover the cost of these reasonable adjustments?

    Access to Work (AtW) is a government-funded grant operated through Job Centre Plus which can help. If an employee applies for funding within the first six weeks they are employed with you, AtW may cover up to around 90% of the costs of the reasonable adjustments. The amount is dependent on the size of your organisation, as many bigger companies/government organisations may not be eligible for the grant in full. Check this out at www.jobcentreplus.gov.uk.

    Five things you could do immediately to make your company more dyslexia friendly

    1. Make all company reference documents available in a plain, sans-serif font such as Arial, in point size 13 (at least) and on a cream paper. Wherever possible, also offer these alternative formats via an intranet that your staff can access easily.

    2. Ensure all notes, handouts etc are circulated electronically two to three days prior to meetings.

    3. Provide all employees with dyslexia awareness training.

    4. Provide screening in open-plan offices, with plenty of plants (these absorb noise as well as creating a more pleasant environment).

    5. Find out about Access to Work and make sure that new staff are informed about it. Set up a system to make applications easy and effective.


    Dr Andi Sanderson is a dyslexia specialist & lead consultant at iansyst Ltd. For more information, call 01223 420101 or visit the website www.re-adjust.co.uk

    5 Responses

    1. Dyslexia as a disability for the DDA
      Mandy Khabra wrote:
      >> I thought that the DDA only recognised severe forms of Dyslexia as opposed to mild forms.

      The DDA definition says “… if he [sic] has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.”

      It is ultimately up to the courts to decide whether a person’s difficulties in reading, writing or spelling, for example, have a “substantial” effect on their life. (They are almost certainly long term.) It will probably depend on the context, too.

      But if your job prospects are being affected that, in itself, suggests your dyslexia is having a “substantial adverse effect . . . etc”. Cases have already been decided in favour of dyslexic people.

    2. Dyslexia – What do we do?
      A very good article giving information on what to do with employees who may suffer from this condition.

      I have a question to raise regarding an individual who did not disclose their dyslexic condition on their application and have now decided to mention it as we have discussed with them their poor performance.

      The role the individual performs is one of reading pharmaceutical product names and products and picking orders for packing and dispatching to various medical outlets. Naturally if these are not picked correctly and the incorrect medication is dispatched the consequences could be quite severe.

      We would like to hold a disciplinary meeting on the basis of witholding information. (our application forms state that by witholding information relevant to the job could result in dismissal).

      What would others recommend or even do in these circumstances?

      Thanks

      Alex Grundy

    3. Dypraxia
      Dyspraxia is a less well-known but common learning disability that affects 5-10% of the population. Much of this article also applies to this condition. Dyspraxia can cause difficulties with coordination, concentration, organisational and social skills, and handwriting. The Dyspraxia Foundation has advice for employers: http://www.dyspraxiafoundation.org.uk/services/ad_employers.php

    4. headphones & assessments

      An excellent article! But don't forget that if you are supplying text-to-speech software you should provide headphones so that only the user hears the document along with any errors / corrections. Without privacy, using the equipment can be embarrasing and your satff are unlikely to make best use of whatever investment you make.
      Also, there are various packages on the market. Generally, if a dyslexic has used a particular package in the past then they should be offered the same again (not told this company uses product 'x').
      Independent assessments are available from expert centres around the UK which will provide recomendations to help employers meet thier obligations. This applies to all forms of Disability. A list of audited and accredited centres can be found at http://www.dsa-qag.org.uk an organisation set up to cover assesments for students, however most centres are happy to deal with businesses too.

    5. Dyslexia
      I am not sure if I am right but I thought that the DDA only recognised severe forms of Dyslexia as opposed to mild forms.

      The article seems to suggest that it covers Dyslexia, period.

      Does anyone have any comments on this?

      Thank you

      Mandy

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