There is no better time than Dyslexia Awareness Week for employers to become more inclusive when it comes to staff with dyslexia. Katherine Kindersley gives practical guidance on how to make meaningful change.
Dyslexia is a neurodevelopmental condition which mainly affects the development of literacy and language skills. It is estimated that one in 10 people have dyslexia, but the scope and degree of challenges will likely range significantly between each person.
It is often regarded simply as a difficulty with reading and writing, but in fact these literacy difficulties are surface symptoms of underlying cognitive weaknesses in short-term memory as well as speed of information processing and phonology – the way a person can manipulate the segments of language. The literacy and numeracy difficulties associated with these weaknesses may be severe and obvious, or they may be more subtle, manifesting themselves in a slower working pace rather than inaccuracy in tasks.
The Equality Act 2010 makes it a legal requirement for employers to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities and provides protection for those with dyslexia and related neurodevelopmental conditions.
There are numerous steps that can be taken to help support and manage dyslexic staff and to ensure line managers, HR professionals and senior management teams are better equipped to become more inclusive.
It is understandable that not everyone can be an expert, but organisations and their employees should try to:
- Become informed about dyslexia and its effects, both practical and emotional
- Become informed about the related syndromes of dyspraxia, attention deficit disorders (ADD), and visual stress
- Remember that dyslexic employees will find written work and aspects of organisation much harder than most people. They may need to apply extra effort in many areas, which may make them prone to fatigue
- Encourage employees to open up about workplace difficulties
- Allow absence from work for dyslexia-specific training.
Most employees benefit from a structured working environment. Therefore, it would be beneficial to consider:
- Using shared timetables, calendars, and lists as visual reminders – encouraging the use of planners that visually highlight appointments and deadlines
- Offering help on planning and prioritising workloads and scheduling daily tasks
- Breaking down large projects into small, manageable tasks with clear deadlines
- Offering guidance and support with new or difficult tasks
- Trying to limit approaching staff with surprising questions and trying to email them in advance
- Giving advance notice of tasks whenever possible, rather than setting sudden deadlines.
Feedback, delegation and instruction
It is important to give direct, constructive, and regular feedback. If a problem occurs, this should be addressed at the time, not in an appraisal three months later. Provide templates when possible and give examples of what is expected. Ensure that ongoing, proactive support from HR or OH is booked in regularly and not used as a last resort.
Always be clear, concise, specific, and include information, such as how long a task should take, and the quality expected in the outcome of a task.
When setting tasks managers and HR teams should:
- Give full, clear instructions and take time to explain things properly
- Repeat things, if necessary, and check back understanding
- Give written, taped or oral instructions, as necessary
- Avoid setting multiple tasks when possible, but if you do, write down a clear order of task priorities
- Present written instructions in a clear format or visual diagram, which allows the use of text-to-speech software
- Allow extra time for reading and writing tasks
- Provide speech-to-text software if needed
- Do not expect the employee to take notes or receive dictation at speed.
Training and career development
Be aware that reluctance to apply for promotion or training courses may be linked to fears of excessive paperwork, and the possible exposure of weaknesses during training. Ensure that in-house courses have a good practice policy in relation to dyslexic trainees. For example, trainers should:
- Provide in advance a clear outline of their talks and relevant course material
- Repeat things, if necessary
- Leave a few minutes at the end of a session to check that dyslexic trainees have understood the main points
- Be aware that whiteboards can cause visual stress
Dyslexic people often express concerns that a confirmed diagnosis could hold them back for promotion, or a fear of being underestimated when being considered for increased responsibilities. It is essential to ensure career progression and equal development opportunities for all. This can simply be a case of putting together a plan that identifies and targets an individual’s strengths.
Failing to consult neurodiverse individuals in the design of changes put in place to support them is likely to be ill-informed and could do more harm than good.”
For example, some dyslexic managers may express concerns about proofreading the work of junior colleagues or having to write quickly or take notes during meetings. It is important to have balance across any organisation to account for strengths and weaknesses – consider delegating proofreading to a more experienced junior member of the team or perhaps a line manager on another team.
Assistive technology can include digital recorders to record discussions and meetings, voice recognition software, grammar and spell-checking apps, software to read text aloud, as well as programmes to help organise and prioritise ideas and activities.
In particular, dictaphones and software such as Grammarly can be beneficial. OneNote, a Microsoft Office tool, also has a dictaphone feature. Mindnode is a mind-mapping and brain-storming tool useful for those who like to visualise multiple ideas at once.
Build awareness and advocacy
Failing to consult neurodiverse individuals in the design of changes put in place to support them is likely to be ill-informed and could do more harm than good, even if it is well intentioned. Open dialogue and consultation can go a long way.
HR teams should consider:
- Mandatory training for all staff about neurodiversity in the workplace
- Appointing a neurodiversity representative, employee or consultant available to the HR and OH departments, to help assess current practices and advise on meaningful changes.
It is hard for individuals to succeed in isolation, and the most successful outcomes are where the employee and the organisation are working together, and the culture is a supportive and inclusive one.
Employers operating in a competitive commercial world may feel it is not easy to create dyslexia-friendly work environments, but it can be done. Many adjustments are relatively easy to introduce and are not expensive.