Ellen Cole, a marketing, PR, and social media professional, was diagnosed with dyslexia while studying for a master’s degree.
“Being a dyslexic individual means I see things differently compared to my non-dyslexic colleagues, this includes spotting weaknesses in business projects and rectifying them to ensure businesses I worked with thrived time and time again,” she says.
“Sadly, I experienced a lot of ridicule within the working environment including being name-called. I recall complaining once to the HR department about being nicknamed ‘brain-damaged’ only to be told to lighten up as it was just a joke.”
Cole was also belittled about how she expressed things verbally from colleagues and at one point, was told by her manager that dyslexia wasn’t real. “I loved my work, however I was deeply unhappy being employed so in 2016, I took the leap and set up as a freelancer and have never looked back.”
Failing dyslexic workers
It's estimated up to one in ten people in the UK has some degree of dyslexia. Yet despite how common it is, Cole’s story is not unusual.
The signs and symptoms of dyslexia differ from person to person and each individual has their own strengths and weaknesses. Dyslexia is a learning difference which tends to affect reading and writing skills, as well as information processing. However, people with dyslexia are often skilled in other areas, such as creative thinking and problem solving.
Despite these attributes — which are sought after by employers — most countries are failing workers with dyslexia, according to a report by the NGO Dyslexia and Literacy International. Even in developed countries, a lack of resources and support for children, students, and adults with dyslexia has a serious impact on their livelihoods, self-esteem, and emotional development, the organisation states. As a result, more than 700 million children and adults worldwide are at risk of life-long illiteracy and social exclusion.
Anna Granta, a coach who works with neurodiverse people to help them use their strengths and build their self-esteem, explains the challenges dyslexic people often encounter in the workplace.
“Not being given enough time to process written information 'on the spot' in meetings is a big one which is easily solved by either reading information or giving it to people ahead of time,” she says.
“People with dyslexia can also have difficulty trying to remember all the steps to follow for particular tasks. Having a step by step guide to follow is very helpful, even better if it's a visual guide.”
As Cole experienced, some workers are bullied for mistakes when reading or writing which are due to their dyslexia. “Workers with dyslexia are sometimes blamed for other people's mistakes or called stupid,” Granta adds.
Barriers in recruitment
People with dyslexia also face systemic barriers to employment because of a widespread lack of awareness, failures in government support and workplace discrimination, research has shown. In 2018, the Westminster AchieveAbility Commission found employees with dyslexia, dyspraxia, austism or attention deficit disorder (ADD) often experience discrimination in the recruitment process, despite being able and skilled.
Of those surveyed, 43% said they felt discouraged from applying by job application processes and 52% said they had experienced discrimination during an interview or selection process. A further 73% didn’t disclose their condition during the interview and of those that did, 58% regretted it — saying it led to unfair treatment.
“Workers with dyslexia are discriminated against by recruitment processes that discount applications for minor errors in spelling or by interviews which focus on the ability to remember complex terminology,” Granta explains.
“However, many people with dyslexia thrive in interviews as they excel at communicating face to face. Unless people with dyslexia receive proper support in their studies they are at a disadvantage in the education system and so their grades do not reflect their true potential, any recruitment process which has inflexible academic requirements may indirectly discriminate.”
Benefits of support
Aside from the moral responsibility of better supporting people with dyslexia in the workplace, there are multiple social and financial benefits too. In 2006, a KPMG report highlighted the long-term costs of literacy difficulties, including unemployment, consequent mental health problems, and anti-social behaviour.
According to the report, “the total resulting costs to the public purse arising from failure to master basic literacy skills in the primary school years are estimated at between £5,000 and £43,000 per individual to the age of 37, and between £5,000 and £64,000 over a lifetime.”
“Kindness goes a long way, workers with dyslexia were often labeled as 'lazy' or 'stupid' at school and so these words are very hurtful and should not be used about anyone with dyslexia,” Granta says.
Better awareness of the different skills dyslexic employees can bring to the workplace is important — and simple adjustments can improve support too.
“Reading pens or text to speech software allow workers with dyslexia to use their strengths in understanding spoken language,” Granta advises. “Write out instructions or give your dyslexic colleagues time to take notes so that they don't struggle to remember multiple steps at the same time. A list of technical terms and acronyms will help new workers get up to speed more quickly.”
When recruiting, businesses should design the process so that it is testing for understanding rather than knowledge. “Ask how concepts relate to each other or role play practical scenarios rather than asking candidates to name concepts,” Granta says. It’s also important to give people the benefit of the doubt if they make spelling errors, especially when under pressure.
For Cole, going self-employed gave her the chance to look after her own wellbeing and work in a way that suited her. Despite a shift in attitudes towards other issues affecting workers, such as mental health, more still needs to be done to better support people with dyslexia.
“I have heard some wonderful stories from others who have been treated well in the workplace and offered reasonable adjustments, sadly I have heard from a lot more who, like me, weren’t so lucky,” she says.