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November 2, 2023

Dyslexia at Work: How I Learned to Live With My Dyslexia

Jaye O'Farrell-Stevens

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“Please read the letters on the wall," said the optician. "Erm. A, P, H, G," I guessed. "That was a long pause," she said. "Were you struggling with that line?" "I've struggled with lots of the letters,” I admitted.

This is a standard example of my life: finding mundane, everyday tasks difficult. Going to the opticians, for most, is a test of your eyesight. But, for me, it's a test of my brain. I struggle to tell the difference between some letters because I’m dyslexic – and now the owner of an unnecessary pair of glasses.

What Is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia was first named by German ophthalmologist Professor Rudolf Berlin in the 18th century. It's a condition that's hereditary and often random. We don’t yet fully understand the cause of the condition, but its effects can be broad and diverse.

There isn’t a fixed definition of dyslexia, and you'll get a different answer depending on the resource you consult. My favourite definition is the one from The Rose Report:

“Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed. Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities. It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category... Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor co-ordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia.”

I especially like this definition because it makes the point that the key components of dyslexia are words – spoken and written – while a caravan of bonus symptoms tag along, like coordination, mathematics and concentration.

For my part, I struggle with reading, writing, and especially short-term memory. Dates and figures disappear from my mind as quickly as the breeze passes over my forehead. One of my best friends suffers from dyslexia, too, and he is constantly falling over due to poor motor coordination. Whereas I can happily walk a high ropes course without peril.

Dyslexia is diverse, and the familiar trope of, “Well, I can’t spell so I’m dyslexic,” is reductive and unhelpful. Each person with dyslexia suffers a range of symptoms, which can change over time.

Discovering My Dyslexia

When I was in Year 1 at school, we weren’t allowed to go for lunch until we'd put our books away in little trays with our names on them. One of my earliest memories is of sitting and crying while the teacher willed me on to find my name. I couldn’t find my name because I couldn’t read my name.

I remember being set homework and my dad getting frustrated because I couldn’t complete it. It wasn’t until I moved schools in Year 4 that things changed. I met the wonderful Mr Bush and he immediately realised I had dyslexia. As soon as the penny dropped, I was put into specific classes and offered specialist help. My reading and writing quickly improved, and my dad came up with an ingenious way to make me practice reading: half an hour of reading meant half an hour of Gran Turismo 4 on the PlayStation.

But as my reading and writing improved, so did my self-awareness. I realised that dyslexia was going to be a real problem and something that might potentially hold me back in the workplace.

Keeping It a Secret

Dyslexia is conspicuous in its notoriety; everyone thinks they understand it, while most have little grasp of what it is or what it means for the individual with it. But because everyone has heard of it, peers think they’re qualified to give advice.

As I entered the workplace, I was warned not to bring it up. When I went for my first interview, I was told by a peer who meant well, “Don’t mention you have dyslexia. If it gets down to the final selection, and you’re both equally qualified and experienced, they’re going to pick the other person as they’ll be less of an inconvenience.”

At the time, this seemed like sensible advice (and advice I adhered to). It was only much later on that I realized that hiding your condition and being ashamed of it is not positive, not progress, and not helpful to anyone. I carried this shame with me for many years. I spent a long time trying my best to hide my condition, laughing off the spelling mistakes and the figures I kept forgetting. It took a long time to get over that shame.

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Dyslexia at Work

Hiding a core aspect of yourself is tiring. Pretending you can disguise your struggles with something as fundamental as reading and writing can only go on so long, especially in a workplace where you do a lot of reading and writing.

I think Teams and Slack strike fear into a lot of dyslexics. Now, not only will your team see your writing, but the entire company can critique your grasp of "though, thought, tough, through, and thorough."

At some point in my career, I decided I wanted to make a change. I didn't want to hide my dyslexia anymore. And the stars aligned in several key areas:

  1. I had matured as a person and in my seniority, so I was less afraid.
  2. I had a boss I trusted and who supported my personal development.
  3. Mind Tools (where I work) asked for anyone with a learning disability to come forward to contribute toward a project.

I offered myself to Mind Tools, and before I knew it I was speaking on webinars, writing blogs, featuring in videos, and being interviewed. I had the opportunity to talk and for people to listen.

How Can Managers Support Dyslexic Employees?

A common question I received was, “What can managers do to support dyslexics?” Here's my answer.

Foster a Supportive Environment

The most important thing anyone can do is to help foster a supportive environment. If you create the right company culture, your employees will feel empowered to come to you with what they need. And that goes far beyond dyslexia.

Talk to Your Team

If you’re aware you have dyslexic individuals in your team, talk to them about what they need. Do they feel excluded from team workshops that involve a lot of writing? Are they struggling with the dreaded “timed Miro board”? If so, how can you modify these activities to be more inclusive? Ask them what they need – they'll know best.

Use Technology

We’re currently blessed with some astounding AI tools, from autocorrects that actually work to incredibly accurate transcription tools. Think about how you can leverage these tools to support your team. And make it clear where these tools are available – they shouldn't be something employees need to ask for.

I've recently stopped writing instructions for tasks. Now I use free screen-recording software (the Screencastify Chrome browser plugin) to record myself doing the task while narrating my actions. It's been a game changer.

Conduct a Review of Tasks and Responsibilities

Can roles be shifted around? Or can tasks that were traditionally written instead be recorded, like I now do? Take this as an opportunity to review your legacy tasks and harness the opportunity to renew and improve.

All these changes will not only make your team members more efficient and productive, they will also be happier. Morale is infectious, and it will spread across the team. It'll be a more energized team, working even better together. And when everyone can perform at their best, they’re going to race through the team bonding stages of forming, storming, norming, and performing.

“The World Is Not a Wish-Granting Factory”

The author John Green wrote, “The world is not a wish-granting factory.” I’m not going to wake up tomorrow and be cured. I will always have dyslexia and there's nothing I can do about it. But there is something that you can do about it.

You can make the workplace more inclusive, make the world less judgmental and open, and support equal opportunities for all. When this happens, we all benefit. My one wish you have the power to grant is that you level the playing field as best you can.

I'll still own a pair of glasses that I don’t need and get frustrated trying to reason with an inanimate parking meter, but I’ll be happier doing it. And wouldn’t that be nice?

Useful Resources on Dyslexia in the Workplace

For more information and useful tips, try these Mind Tools resources. (Some of these will only be available to Mind Tools members.)

Dyslexia in the Workplace (Article)
Neurodiversity in the Workplace (Article)
Diversity at Work (Animated Video)
Autism in the Workplace (Article)
ADHD in the Workplace (Article)
Improving Group Dynamics (Article)
Training Needs Assessment (Article)


Blog author, Jaye O'Farrell-Stevens

About the Author:

Jaye is an experienced Customer Service Manager. After studying motorsport engineering at university, he went into a career centred on problem-solving and helping people, jumping from engineering to customer support. Jaye joined Mind Tools in 2016 and has worked in several roles, always focusing on a customer-first mentality. A published poet and keen hiker, in his spare time Jaye enjoys mountain climbing.

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