Creating a dyslexia-friendly workplace

Dyslexia reportedly affects 10% of the UK, but it often goes unmentioned, unaccommodated or misunderstood in the workplace. We speak to experts about making a work environment where people with dyslexia can thrive

According to the NHS, it’s estimated that up to one in every ten people in the UK has some form of dyslexia. However, despite affecting roughly 10% of the population, dyslexia often goes unreported in the workplace. Experts largely put this down to employees’ reluctance to disclose their condition for fear of being discriminated against, even though it became illegal to do so under the Equality Act 2010.

“Your organisation will have dyslexic people in it,” posits Roxanne Hobbs, whose eponymous organisation, The Hobbs Consultancy, helps to introduce diversity and inclusion measures to companies.

“Some may be open about their dyslexia and some might be masking. This is probably because many dyslexics have had bad experiences at school,” she explains. School environments have long had a reputation of perpetuating stigmas around dyslexia, breeding myths that students get an unfair advantage or ‘bonus points’ by simply declaring they have it (far from self-declaration, in reality it’s a more complicated process involving costly assessments).

“They might consequently feel that their dyslexia is something to be hidden and that it will get in the way of further promotions,” she explains. While it’s an individual’s prerogative to disclose their condition, if they don’t it means they’re unlikely to benefit from reasonable adjustments that could help them prosper.

Hobbs believes the biggest hurdle preventing dyslexic employees from thriving in the workplace is tied to how the condition is perceived by fellow employees. It’s also arguably the easiest to remedy.

“I think dyslexia is pretty misunderstood in organisations. People tend to think it’s just a difficulty with spelling, and it’s more than that,” she tells CR. While it can impact the “learning process in reading, spelling and writing” – effects that most people are familiar with – Hobbs points out that it may also present “challenges in speed of processing, short term memory, organisation, sequencing and motor skills”.

Each person with dyslexia will be different. Therefore, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach.

This misunderstanding can lead to severe oversights that could leave someone with dyslexia open to biases before they even join the company. “The recruitment process could present a real obstacle – especially if it relies on recruitment tests and application forms,” Hobbs highlights.

Hobbs acknowledges that it might seem difficult for non-dyslexic managers or colleagues to fully understand the condition, since it takes many different forms for different individuals – which only underlines the value that basic training courses can bring to teams.

“Each person with dyslexia will be different. Therefore, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach,” she explains. “Legally, you have to provide reasonable adjustments which are often inexpensive. Simply sit down with people and ask them what they need so as to thrive. It might be the simplest of things. We found out that our method of writing words over pictures in PowerPoint wasn’t dyslexia friendly so we have simply stopped doing that.”

National charity the British Dyslexia Association (BDA) has created a readily available set of adjustments that are either low-cost or cost-free altogether, and generally requires very little effort on the part of the organisation. Of course, the required adjustments should be determined on a case-by-case basis given the various ways dyslexia might affect an individual and their work circumstances.

Software and applications offer a whole raft of benefits to support people in various ways. Instant spell checkers are pretty ubiquitous already, and other assistive software such as ClaroRead or Texthelp can facilitate spelling and writing-related tasks. Meanwhile speech to text software like Dragon can help with transcribing conversations and voice recordings to text.

Co-chair of the BDA, Margaret Malpas, suggests simple adjustments to habits in the workplace can be beneficial. “For example, critical information should always be given verbally and backed up in writing,” she says. This allows the person to use text reading software if desired, which can be helpful for comprehension checks.

The theory is that if you focus on strengths, people can really fly. If you focus on development areas, people will only ever become average at those things

Introducing various formats – including video, audio, drawings, diagrams and flowcharts – for communicating information can be helpful for people who have difficulty with reading or writing. The BDA also has a comprehensive dyslexia-friendly style guide that details suggested fonts, line heights, layouts and colours, as well as writing style pointers that help with clarity.

Depending on the individual’s requirements, useful steps can be as simple as allowing more time for tasks, offering frequent breaks away from computer screens and creating a quiet space in the office to facilitate concentration. The bottom line is that it’s not difficult to implement helpful measures. Malpas indicates that “some slight changes to management style and practice can help everyone”.

On the whole, these should be more achievable than ever as the changing work environment brings with it more opportunities to work flexibly, including working from home. However, with this comes a greater reliance on text-based forms of communication, including email and instant messenger services like Slack. So what does this mean for someone with dyslexia who struggles in particular with written and reading-based tasks?

“There are advantages and disadvantages to home working,” says Malpas. “Dyslexic people have strengths in influencing through verbal creativity. Clearly, it’s a disadvantage if all the communications are in writing.” However, since dyslexic people may struggle with personal organisation, she highlights that working from home could be a benefit, since everything is more easily accessible.

Ultimately, Hobbs believes that the most important step to take in the workplace – particularly from a managerial perspective – is to take a “strengths-based approach” rather than focusing on perceived weaknesses or developmental areas. “The theory is that if you focus on strengths, people can really fly. If you focus on development areas, people will only ever become average at those things,” she points out. “Rather than expecting the dyslexic person to become a brilliant at the written word, you could focus on and tailor their work to what they shine at.”

In essence, it’s more helpful for everyone if dyslexia isn’t simply perceived to be a deficit. “Dyslexia can also be associated with outstanding creative skills or interpersonal skills,” Hobbs says. The link between dyslexia and creativity has been the focus of countless psychology studies and anecdotal debates, and while the limited scientific evidence still makes it a point of contention, it’s positive to see many people in the creative world – including leading artists, actors and entrepreneurs – thriving with dyslexia.

Sharing goes a long way in creating an open atmosphere within teams or the company as a whole, which can diminish stigmas and reinforce a better understanding. “Providing the opportunity to learn from other people’s stories and senior people being ‘out and proud’ all create a culture of openness,” Hobbs says. Even when this doesn’t concern senior members of staff having dyslexia, being candid about strengths and weaknesses can be reassuring for everybody.

“I’m rubbish at attention to detail and so my Operations Director is someone who is a detail ninja,” Hobbs readily admits. “As with all of these adjustments, they represent ways of working that benefit everyone, not just [people] that are dyslexic.”;; Top image: iStock/ndesign