Taking charge of dyslexia in the workplace
Shame is a powerful emotion. And so is fear. You may think they are uncommon feelings in the workplace, but right now there is a one in 10 chance that a colleague is experiencing these disabling emotions.
And the reason? Their dyslexia has been misunderstood, particularly at school, resulting in life experiences that have challenged their self-esteem and identity.
To those of us who might take for granted our ability to peruse a report or express our ideas in an email or document, it is hard to imagine how these seemingly simple tasks can produce such an emotive reaction from so many dyslexic people. But for those whose dyslexia has been misunderstood either in school or elsewhere in their life, the feelings are very real, and understandable.
Richard Taylor, co-founder and co-director of the Weta companies, regularly comes into contact with people struggling with the feelings dyslexia evokes. “Only a few weeks ago I met a young man whose parents brought him to the workshop to see what we could do. He had been labelled in degrading ways in terms of his ability, when actually his motor skills, visual and creative skills were amazing.
“It’s tough at that age, but what I tried to make him understand is how important it is to believe in his own unique capabilities. When he leaves school it will become apparent that he is actually in a unique position to make the most of his exceptional creative view of the world,” he says.
The story is just one of many that Taylor offers when talking about dyslexia, a topic he is deeply passionate about, and its sentiments are echoed by other high profile New Zealanders who experience dyslexia.
“I hid the fact that I had issues with writing and spelling for 37 years, out of shame and fear of being judged a dummy, an idiot, lazy or stupid. At high school, to cover up my issues I just pretended I didn’t care and teachers told my parents I was lazy and didn’t try. You get the picture,” says Paul Reid, CEO of the New Zealand MetService.
Fortunately, for young New Zealanders and those already in the workforce who have dyslexia, a global step-change in thinking is underway. Instead of pigeon-holing dyslexia as a disability, the new thinking focuses on increasing understanding which helps employers to notice the difficulties (or preferences) a staff member has and to adjust their actions in response.
This simple “notice and adjust” approach empowers employees to achieve their potential and demonstrates an employer’s willingness to support genuine needs. This leads to increased job fulfillment for dyslexic employees, and for the employer, an enhanced bottom line.
At its essence, dyslexia is the disparity between thinking skills (which are usually strong) and basic skills such as reading and writing (which can often be weak in comparison). This is a consequence of how the brain is wired, and a strong preference as to where it processes information.
In fact, leading dyslexia researcher Sally Shaywitz, founder of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity has shown that dyslexics tend to have strengths in higherlevel thinking processes, learning capacity, creative problem-solving, thinking ‘outside the square’ and empathy. She also found that dyslexics excel when focused on highly specialised areas, ranging from medicine and law to science and architecture.
Dyslexics also have great skills in entrepreneurialism. Research from the United Kingdom shows that 35 percent of US entrepreneurs and 20 percent of UK entrepreneurs are dyslexic.
With such strengths to offer, the challenge for New Zealand employers is to find the right way to harness the potential benefits. For Taylor, the emphasis for a good employer needs to be on changing their approach to working with dyslexic employees in order to help them flourish.
“You need to identify exactly what attributes you want in the person you hire. If you expect a more traditional, linear thinking mode you will need to put more support around a dyslexic person to help them achieve that.
“Awareness is critical. You need team leaders who can identify the signs of dyslexia and make simple adjustments so the employee feels valued and empowered. This will involve good peer support and making sure that the challenges you set dyslexic employees are testing, but not outside the realm of their capability,” he says.
These sentiments are echoed by Reid.
“Dyslexia has helped me be a good leader because I’ve learnt to communicate ideas, issues and concepts in different ways. I have had to adapt to succeed but I believe this has actually made me a stronger leader,” he says.
“For example, in moments of crisis, I can take a lot of verbal information, process it, draw conclusions and make decisions on the spot. I deal in concepts rather than in details and I can give a one hour presentation without notes. I spend a lot of time walking around the business talking to people, and I often use the telephone to discuss business matters, rather than email.”
Reid believes that business owners or employers need to rethink traditional principles and rules to help dyslexic employees, and to allow them to help themselves.
“Employees with any form of dyslexia can be of great use to organisations as long asyou don’t put them in the wrong job and expect them to undertake tasks that they cannot perform. It’s about horses for courses and matching skills to strengths.
Reid says many dyslexic adults can work very hard at hiding their weaknesses, instead of using their significant abilities to add value to the business. Employers can lift productivity by helping them identify, and play to their strengths.
“It’s great to see a new model emerging that is based on attitude, where knowing the questions to ask is more important than knowing the answers, and where people areconstructively speaking out. Good communication and understanding strengths and weaknesses is essential for supporting employees, especially those affected by dyslexia,” he says.
Where to learn more
Tips for harnessing the benefits of dyslexia
• Attitude is everything, and it counts from top to bottom. Make an effort to understand the strengths that Dyslexia can offer and do not confuse weakness in basic skills with a lack of intelligence, ability or commitment.
• Accept the challenge to review your company style guides and fine tune them to suit the needs of dyslexic people. It’s not only them who benefit, everyone gains when things are communicated in a way that is clear, concise, well-planned and combines a mixture of words and visuals.
• Focus on communication. Deliver information and instructions orally or visually wherever possible, rather than writing things down. Encourage others to do the same because it is often quicker, more efficient and engages people more effectively in the business at hand
• Value visual information as well as the written, and include diagrams and pictures in presentations and reports.
• Always give an overview and explain the big picture.
• Ask for ideas verbally in meetings instead of always seeking written responses.
• Ensure support structures are in place for dyslexic employees if you expect themto deliver work in a traditional, linear fashion.
First of all let me tell you a little bit about PEN. The acronym stands for Parents Education Network, a coalition of parents collaborating with educators, students and the community to empower and bring academic success to students with learning and attention difficulties. If you live in the San Francisco Bay area and have children with these challenges, this is a lively group, well worth your time and energy.
In mid-March PEN Speaker Series welcomed Patricia Oetter talking on Sensory Integration: Do we really need it?
She began her presentation defining the senses. Nerves can best be described through neurobehavioral organization. These sensory neurons work in tandem with our motor neurons. Why? We need to do something with the neuro-sensory part of our selves.
I referred to biologyreference.com for a little more detail.
Sensory neurons bring information about the world within and around the body from sense organs to the brain and spinal cord.
Motor neurons carry messages from the brain and spinal cord out to the muscles and glands.
An example: if a mosquito lands on a person’s arm, sensory neurons in the skin send a message to the spinal cord and then the brain, where the message is understood, and a reaction formulated. The brain’s response may be to use motor neurons to cause muscle contractions resulting in a slap on the skin.
Ms. Oetter expanded the usual definition of the senses: see, hear, taste, touch and smell, to include to:
- Vestibular system. This sense contributes to our balance and our sense of spatial orientation. It’s the sense that is about being in motion and knowing how to handle oneself. She reminded us that children learn balance by falling down purposefully – it’s movement through space.
- Proprioception. This sense indicates where the various parts of the body are located in relation to each other.
Ms. Oetter cautioned us to remember that our senses are continually providing information to the brain which means that in any given moment, a person may react in one way or another, depending on what sense is dominant at that moment. For this reason she seemed to eschew placing too much emphasis on the phrases “hyper” meaning beyond or excessively or “hypo” meaning under or below normal. She re-iterated for the teachers present: A student in a state of hypo-activity is just in a momentary state. Before you know it, the student may become hyper-active.
She talked about the intensity of sensation which is experienced through the duration of its frequency and pattern: novelty vs repetition. She explained that the neuro-chemistry inside our cells when turned up or down are a part of how we perceive something. Our cells are turned up when we are not feeling comfortable or safe.
She had an interesting comment that touch is the key for vision: If you don’t know what is going on with your vision, your body doesn’t know where it is.
She re-iterated several times her concern that boys in our school systems are lacking experiences they need for development. The reason? It seems the schools learning systems are focused on a girl’s point of view. As a result the experience of risk is diminished, an important component for young boy’s growth. She recommended three books that are helpful in raising boys:
Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph and Paul Stanish
Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson,
The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do, Peg Tyre
Ms. Oetter made a sobering comment. It takes 25 – 30 years of age before the brain is mature enough to handle the senses. It seems it takes that long for mylenation, the development of an insulation material to form a layer, usually around a neuron. This sheath is essential for the proper functioning of the nervous system. One of the components that ensures mylenation is the condition of feeling safe. She reminded us that boys, girls, young adults, all of us actually, need smiles and touch to find a way to feel safe.
There is so much more information that Ms. Oetter shared. However, now brevity is important.
I would like to comment on the value of these lectures sponsored by PEN. Over this last year I have attended most of them. As a dyslexic and hyperlexic these perspectives have been very useful to me. And, as each dyslexic/hyperlexic has different reasons for their challenge I know it is important to examine a wide variety of solutions. Each speaker gave me another clue into how I function or not. In Ms. Oetter’s case, over the last twenty years I have focused on my senses to understand some of my dyslexic behavior. I found her information most helpful. It gave me another point of view on the topic.
I just wish that parents and teachers challenged with children who have learning issues were in attendance in droves so they, too, could learn. These lectures are one of the best “buys” in the Bay Area.