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What you need to know about dyslexia in the workplace

Here’s an interesting statistic: About one in 10 people have some form of dyslexia, but more than 25 per cent of self-made billionaires are dyslexic …

… And many of the world’s famous companies have been established and managed by people with dyslexia.

One of the most common language-based learning disorders, dyslexia has nothing to do with IQ –Albert Einstein was dyslexic and had an estimated IQ of 160. Experts disagree over whether it should even be viewed as any sort of disability. 

It usually affects someone’s ability to read, spell and decode words by mixing up letters and numbers.

Virgin Australia founder Richard Branson has dyslexic and calls it his “greatest strength” because it helped him to focus on simple communication and learn the art of delegating – both of which are key skills for any business leader.

But how do people with dyslexia who aren’t already at the top of the food chain experience work?

Lawrence Eastland, 44, is the national graphic designer for creative education provider the SAE Institute.

“At school, I knew I was ‘different’,” he says. “The school, though, just thought I was slow.”

Based in Byron Bay, he has worked for SAE since 2013. Despite never having been tested for dyslexia while growing up, he long suspected that he had the condition.

This ‘difference’ has never held Eastland back. He has worked successfully in advertising and graphic design all his adult life, including a stint as senior art director at Sydney advertising agency Clemenger. His job with SAE, however, obliged him to engage with text and spreadsheets for the first time, which became problematic.

“My immediate boss suggested that I get tested by the Australian Dyslexia Association (ADA), and I passed with flying colours – I’m completely dyslexic.”

After some initial scepticism, Eastland’s employer is now treating his case sympathetically, and the HR department is currently liaising with the ADA to look at changing his job description and KPIs to accommodate the diagnosis.

“There’s never been any question about the quality of my work,” says Eastland, who says ideally, he would like the people who provide him with text to proofread it first – and for the copy to get a final proofread once he has worked on it.

“My hope is that dyslexia will become more widely understood and acknowledged, and taken into consideration in job applications,” he says.

Attitude adjustment

People with dyslexia can experience a wide range of attitudes and challenges in the workplace.

“Dyslexic people often find their way up as entrepreneurs, not only because of their strategic abilities, but also because the way we manage recruitment and promotions at work, often blocks them from climbing the corporate ladder in the regular path others are taking,” says Dr Zivit Inbar, non-executive director and company secretary of SPELD, the peak body in Victoria for Specific Learning Difficulties, a provider of advice and support for people with dyslexia.

Getting a foot in the door can be a major hurdle. “I’ve heard executives say, ‘give me a break, we don’t need dyslexic people here’, and that’s in more than one organisation,” says Inbar.

Then comes the problems presented by traditional job application processes that involve the written word. Take psychometric testing, for example. While many dyslexic people have above average IQ, they need more time to convey their abilities than the tests allow.

“If you give dyslexic people time, they will succeed. Time extension in tests does not mean that the employee will need such accommodations at work,” says Inbar.

From school to work

Many dyslexics struggle at school, but Inbar says that in the workplace, it can be an advantage. People with dyslexia often excel at tasks involving visual thinking, spotting patterns and the connections between them, learning though storytelling, and reasoning in complex and changing environments.

“Dyslexic people are better at the ‘big picture’ than details, and are potential talents that organisations are overlooking,” she says.

And although dyslexia might be a challenge in some jobs, it’s not a challenge in all jobs, says Jodi Clements, president of ADA. “We still have a long way to go in helping employers understand what dyslexia is and changing the belief that it might be a burden.”

At professional services firm PwC the workplace adjustment policy offers the opportunity for any employee who requests it to change aspects of their environment or work practices.

More generally, the policy covers issues such as changes to equipment or workstations. In relation to dyslexia, it might involve coloured overlays to make reading easier, flexible working, or the provision of information software to allow an employee to talk to a computer.

Steve Rayment is a technical consultant at PwC, who is himself dyslexic.

“I have dyslexia mildly, but I definitely think differently,” he says. “Sometimes I miss parts of a conversation because I’ve already had them in my head. And my writing is horrific.”

Rayment moved to Australia in September 2014 from the UK, where he was the chair of the invisible disabilities board (covering dyslexia and other areas such as autism) at his then employer Barclays. “The UK is definitely more advanced on the topic, and people in Australia are still uncomfortable with invisible disabilities,” he says.

Rayment is now involved in PwC’s ability network, established in 2014, and hopes to emulate the progress made in this area in the UK.

One future development has been to set up a ‘buddy system’, which he describes as, “creating a safe space where people can talk about something they’re struggling with, without feeling embarrassed”.

PwC has also posted its disability access and inclusion plan with the Australian Human Rights Commission – the first professional services firm to do so.

“It’s been a slow journey, as it is for many large organisations, but we’ve made some big progress over the past 12 months,” says Nicole Vongdara, PwC’s national lead for health and wellbeing.

Alicia Gleeson, executive general manager, human resources, Crown Melbourne, says that workers rarely disclose learning difficulties. With many young people presenting with poor writing skills, sometimes it’s a case of distinguishing whether it’s a lack of ability or a disability, she says.

When dyslexia is disclosed, there are easy accommodations that can be made. “In one case, a candidate who was training with us and working in the food and beverage area was having trouble writing things down, so we used photos instead,” says Gleeson.

“All of our trainers are trained in providing alternative assessment procedures, and are focused on competency-based learning. Alternatives can be oral or visual. It’s about finding other ways to communicate and making simple adjustments,” she says.

Crown Ability is the company’s disability program set up specifically to accommodate people in the workforce. “It’s really about attitude and a propensity to provide a great customer experience and most disabilities don’t impact on that, says Gleeson.

Positive profiling

Profiling individuals suspected of being dyslexic is a key activity for the ADA – although Clements insists this should not be seen as a diagnosis. A profile can determine a person’s strengths and challenges, as well as which environments minimise the negative impact of dyslexia and maximise a person’s strengths. A profile can then be utilised to make, what Clements calls, “reasonable adjustments in the workplace, under the law.”

Not all employers have an enlightened approach however, and it has been known for the ADA to be approached for the purpose of getting a report together in order to justify sacking an employee – a request that is, naturally, refused.

In complete contrast, Clements cites a recent case of positive steps an employer can take. The managers of a caravan park in Queensland recognised that one of their employees was struggling and possibly dyslexic, and arranged and paid for the ADA to assess them.

The assessment discovered that the employee found timetabling (such as booking people in) a challenge, but was strong in verbal communication. The focus of their duties was then shifted towards greeting customers and speaking on the phone, while the company brought in technology to help with written work, and arranged proofreading support.

Clements’ headline advice for employers is to find out how dyslexia presents in the workplace. Her sketch of a typical dyslexic employee is, “someone who is very good at hands-on, practical tasks, and has very good oral communication, but who has a discrepancy with their written abilities, and verbal instructions and directions”.

“Dyslexic people can learn, respond and adapt, but they need support,” says Inbar. Without a bit of help, she says, “we’re missing out on all these great potential leaders.”

This article is an edited version. The original version first appeared in the July issue of HRMonthly magazine as “Caught in the Muddle.” AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times a year. To learn more about becoming a member, click here

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