September 24, 2010

Dyslexia in the Workplace: Disability or Talent?

In the UK, dyslexia is covered by the provisions of the Disabilities Discrimination Act, and meaningful protection is afforded to dyslexic thinkers through this means.

However, is the disability framework for understanding dyslexia actually harming dyslexic interests rather than furthering them?

Essentially, there are four distinct challenges involved in creating a dyslexia-friendly workplace, each of which needs to be addressed comprehensively in order to create a workplace culture in which diversity of thinking style can be comfortably accommodated – and harnessed to the creation of commercial success.

First, there is the issue that, as we discovered through our NOP-commissioned research last summer, around 2 million adult dyslexic thinkers are not aware of their dyslexia. This is most likely the result of poor diagnosis a generation ago, but also of lack of clarity around what exactly dyslexia is.

There is a huge need for employers’ awareness training that is not clinical, but rather gives a direct and subjective experience of what it is like to be a dyslexic thinker – so employers can start to use their intuition to determine when an employee may be a dyslexic thinker, and provide appropriate help.

Secondly, all the dyslexia support in the world will be of no avail to an employee who is frightened or ashamed to own up to being a dyslexic thinker. In our organisation, we have worked with dyslexic adults who had never told anyone about their dyslexia, who woke up with repetitive nightmares about “being found out”, and who felt it was easier to “come out” as gay in the workplace than as dyslexic.

And this is the problem with a legal framework that classifies dyslexia as a disability – it intensifies rather than alleviates the immense stigma around dyslexic thinking. We have spoken to dyslexic students who refused to apply for the Disabled Student’s Allowance because they were so horrified by the name. Let’s not underestimate the psychological effects of calling a bright and gifted thinker “disabled”.

The elephant in the room is that dyslexia is not a disability, but a thinking style. Dyslexic thinkers excel in visual-spatial tasks involving whole-picture thinking and finding original and creative solutions to things. In 2003, the BBC’s Mind of a Millionaire series commissioned a research piece into the thinking style of British millionaires and discovered that 40% of those polled were dyslexic thinkers. A more recent study by the Cass Business School established a 35% correlation between dyslexia and entrepreneurism in the US.

The disability framework for dyslexia is a convenience, but a harmful one. It is a convenient way of assuring protection to dyslexic thinkers in the workplace – at least on a superficial level. It is convenient for employers and educators because it does not require us to become curious about the dyslexic thinking style and explore its potential.

Yet this is where the disability framework is harmful. For the third challenge that we face in the workplace is creating an environment where dyslexic thinkers can grow their skills. Disability support is essentially a series of props that presents precisely that from happening – because disability theory preassumes a person will never be able to master a certain skill.

Our organisation specialises in an approach which enables dyslexic thinkers to harness their natural talent to any learning challenge. From our work, we know that with the right approach, dyslexic thinking becomes a learning tool, not a learning difficulty. If a school has failed to teach a child to read and write, wouldn’t it be exciting if the workplace were an environment where these skills could finally be unlocked? In most cases, this creates an immensely grateful, loyal and eager employee whose new-found skills can be applied to the benefit of the business.

The fourth challenge we face is how to harness dyslexic talent in the workplace. When unsupported, dyslexic thinkers can become “trace-coverers” – fearful individuals who may invest a lot of energy in avoiding or deferring challenging tasks and finding excuses why they cannot be done. When supported, however, dyslexic thinkers can be among the most innovative and original contributors to a company’s success.

I know a dyslexic company director who has a flair for designing systems to maximise company efficiency. He works on a consultancy basis to a number of companies where he gradually reduces his own role to a minimum – through the same efficiency principles – then moves on to the next company while staying on a retainer with the previous.

Some of your dyslexic thinkers will have excellent sales and/or marketing skills. Others will be highly empathetic and have great potential on an HR team. Yet others will be good troubleshooters, yet others will excel in workplace design and production processes, and so on.

In an environment where dyslexia is respected as a thinking style, frank and open conversations can take place around a person’s natural strengths and challenges, ensuring that each dyslexic thinker is placed in a context where they can excel, both for their own benefit and for that of their employer.

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