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We need to talk about dyslexia at work

We need to talk about dyslexia at work
52% claimed to have experienced discrimination during interview or selection processes
The legal protections for dyslexic workers are better if the employer is aware of their dyslexia - Ide
Neurodivergent employees are an untapped potential - Evans

Dyslexia affects more than 10% of people. Yet policies for dyslexic employees are patchy. Some workplaces, from police forces to insurance companies, are pushing these forward.

Nessa Corkery was always aware of her dyslexia, which was diagnosed during her first few years of school. 

Eventually she studied nursing and wanted to work in a hospital environment. “I have always been a very confident person and hate to let people think that just because my brain processes things differently that I am not able to do what others can do.”

She was offered support during college, including a recording pen for lectures, a laptop to dictate notes and extra time in exams.

However, this support fell short when she started her work placement. For the first time she felt really low.

“I was aware I was doing a bad job and no matter how much I tried I could not keep up with the other students,” she says.

“It looked like I was complacent and just didn’t care, but I just found it difficult to retain everything at the pace the others could. Nursing staffing shortages are a constant issue, so staff nurses are usually too stressed to take the time to teach students. I found it very difficult to ask for extra help as I was already considered a hindrance.”

The global scale of dyslexia

In Ireland, where Corkery lives, dyslexia is recognised as a disability under law; therefore workers are entitled to reasonable adjustments. But Ireland is definitely an exception. Most countries are failing workers with dyslexia, according to a report by the NGO Dyslexia and Literacy International.

Although it’s difficult to work out exactly how many dyslexics there are worldwide, Dyslexia and Literacy International suggests at least 10% of the population has dyslexia, which equates to around 700 million people. 

According to Dyslexia and Literacy International, a lack of basic literacy skills means that too many young adults still lack the functional skills they need to make their way in the modern world.

Even in wealthier countries where public education is available for children of all backgrounds, disparate resources can leave great gaps in services available for students with special needs.

Without identification and effective intervention, the impact of dyslexia can be significant and long-lasting, not only for the individual, but for society at large.

“Most adult dyslexics have a lifetime of reading experience where they learn to accomplish the task by any means necessary, for example through alternative strategies, using word memory, or skimming (or even avoiding reading),” explains Joel B. Talcott, professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at Aston University in the UK. 

“In some environments where highly proficient reading is needed, these demands may exceed the individual’s reading capacity and this is when difficulties may be encountered.”

Talcott says that in some cases this may be the breaking point when an individual recognises for the first time that they have reading difficulties, or read differently from their peers.

A landmark piece of research, by the KPMG Foundation in 2006, analysed the overall social costs of ignoring illiteracy linked to dyslexia. 

They include unemployment, mental health problems and remedial programmes, as well as costs incurred due to anti-social behaviour, such as drug abuse, early pregnancy and criminal justice involvement.

In the United Kingdom, the KPMG report found, these costs range between £5,000 and £64,000 over an individual’s lifetime. 

This works out at a total of £198 million to £2.5 billion every year, which far exceeds the costs of early intervention.

Roadblocks

In 2018, the Westminster AchieveAbility Commission (WAC) found evidence of systemic barriers to employment for millions of potential employees in the UK who are neurodivergent – meaning that their brains function, learn and process information differently.

The report highlighted a widespread lack of awareness, failures in government support and workplace discrimination, but also many examples of good practice. Most neurodivergent people are able and skilled – it is the recruitment processes that disable them.

Hampered by job application processes, 43% of the people interviewed felt discouraged from applying. Another 52% claimed to have experienced discrimination during interview or selection processes.

“If you have been given negative comments or experiences about your dyslexia throughout your education, which is very common, then most adults would prefer to put that behind them and not refer to their dyslexia,” says Margaret Malpas, former chair of the British Dyslexia Association. “In too many cases, our workplace climate isn’t fully accepting of dyslexia yet.”

In the UK in 2016, a woman with dyslexia won a disability discrimination case against Starbucks after she was accused of falsifying documents. A tribunal found Meseret Kumulchew had been discriminated against after making mistakes due to her difficulties with reading, writing and telling the time.

Kumulchew’s solicitor, Jenna Ide, says, “I think the Starbucks case was so important at the time, because there were not many high profile cases regarding dyslexia, especially involving a ‘David and Goliath’ situation.”

Spokesperson for Starbucks, Georgia Misson, responded saying the firm has worked hard to extend support tailoring it to suit individual employees. “We have increased the disability awareness training, provided new equipment such as tablets to help employees with their day-to-day role, as well as organisational coaches available for-on-the job assistance,” she says.

However, in mainland Europe, most countries do not have the same national awareness or protection for workers as in Ireland or the UK. 

Benedicte Beaugeois, for example, is dyslexic and works in digital marketing in France. She has also worked for Dyslexia and Literacy International.

“In France being dyslexic in the workplace is still seen as a bad thing,” Beaugeois says. “I have received zero support in the workplace. I lied for a long time about being dyslexic, until I moved to London. Now I’m very proud of it.”

According to the European Dyslexia Assocation, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability and an EU directive on equal treatment in employment are meant to impose legal obligations prohibiting discrimination and requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations. However, there are currently no specific laws on workplace dyslexia in Europe.

Making workplaces more inclusive

In the UK, however, under the Equality Act 2010, dyslexia is classed as a disability. To prevent discrimination and comply with the Act, employers are required to make suitable adjustments to workplaces if people with dyslexia require it.

However, there remains some confusion over when is the right time to disclose to your employer that you have dyslexia.

“Dyslexic workers can disclose their dyslexia to their employer at any time, even during the recruitment stage,” says Ide.

“As a golden rule, the legal protections for dyslexic workers are better if the employer is aware of their dyslexia, so in an ideal world, the sooner the better – this means that reasonable adjustments can be put in place from the start of employment.”  

One person strongly encouraging companies to adopt assistive technology to support their employees with dyslexia is Nasser Siabi.

Siabi and his family relocated from Iran to the UK in 1977. His computer science and technology background, coupled with a chronic visual impairment, led him to create Microlink in 1992. Microlink stocks a range of technology and tools to help people with learning difficulties. It also offers a workplace adjustment service.

Siabi says the primary purpose of assistive technologies for people with disabilities is to restore their ability to communicate effectively with the world by removing barriers posed by their condition.

“For example, for people with dyslexia who struggle to communicate with written text it is now possible to get the computer to help the person to write using [their] voice instead of typing,” he says. “Device screen readers can read back text instead of the person having to read text off the screen.”

In the UK, even faced with shrinking budgets, some public services are investing in technology which is proving successful.

Hampshire Police, for example, are actively embracing assistive technologies and adjustments for workers with dyslexia as part of their working day.

These include coloured hard-backed exercise books to help officers track words on the page in interviews; coloured overlay screens to make reading easier on computers; smart pens for meetings, which can record audio and digitise notes; extra time for paperwork, exams and assessments; and a quiet room to avoid distractions.

Hampshire Police also carry out screening at the recruitment and training stages so employees with dyslexia can be supported right from the beginning.

Inspector Peter Phillips, who leads the programme, says that this support “needs to be specific and bespoke to the individual (as their dyslexia can be very different to anyone else’s) and their role.” The benefits include “improved attendance (reduced stress and anxiety) and improved performance (increased confidence in their own abilities)."

Thomas Smith, who works in the Hampshire Police control room, had no idea he was dyslexic until he started working for the police three years ago. 

“I’ve spent my whole life assuming I was slow or stupid,” he says.  

“My job for the police requires me to concentrate for most of my day. I need to remember numbers, sequences, code and acronyms. Trying to juggle all of these words and numbers sometimes means they get mixed up. Now I’ve been diagnosed it has helped me understand myself. My dyslexia still owns me but it is not who I am.”

Tapping creative potential

Mark Evans, a managing director of marketing and digital at the insurance company Direct Line Group, has put dyslexia and other learning difficulties at the heart of the company. His daughter is also dyslexic.

The company brought in external specialists and speakers to encourage the conversation around neurodiversity. They then started to adjust their policies and procedures to help employees with dyslexia, including making reasonable workplace adjustments and forming support groups. In doing this, the company found that they were nurturing a really creative workforce.

“Neurodivergent employees are an untapped potential,” Evans says. “If properly supported we can unleash their ‘superpowers’.”

He feels it’s becoming increasingly relevant to do this; as machine learning and artificial intelligence develop, businesses will have to put more emphasis on creativity to be competitive.

Margaret Malpas from the British Dyslexia Association adds: “There is no doubt for me that the dyslexic brain, with its different way of processing information, confers specific talents such as greater creativity of thought, that isn’t to say dyslexia makes you a genius or vice versa…   

“The best way to foster the talent in people with dyslexia is to identify it early and provide tailored support. With the right support, the dyslexic mind has amazing potential.” 

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