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Dyslexia and the diversity dividend

22nd October 2021 Posted by

Blog by Dr Tracey Leghorn, Chief Human Resources and Health and Safety Officer, SUEZ recycling and recovery UK

Albert Einstein and Kiera Knightley, John Lennon, and Sir Richard Branson – all highly successful in their careers, admired role models, and dyslexic. They’re just a few of the famous examples of people who’ve overcome dyslexia’s hidden barriers, or perhaps it’d be more accurate to say, turned dyslexia into a catalyst for their hidden talents.

But it’s the one in 10 of us – our children, colleagues, employees – who may be struggling in their own personal battle with the condition that we should focus on for a moment.

According to the British Dyslexia Association, around 10% of people in the UK have dyslexia, and 4% are at the severe end of the spectrum. And that may well be an under-estimate. Dyslexia Action estimates the proportion of the population with dyslexia is 16%. Government statistics state that one in six adults has the reading level of an 11-year-old.

What is dyslexia? Dyslexia Scotland defines it as “a continuum of difficulties in learning to read, write and/or spell, which persist despite the provision of appropriate learning opportunities. These difficulties often do not reflect an individual’s cognitive abilities and may not be typical of performance in other areas.”

The exact cause of dyslexia is not yet known, though it seems to be hereditary. Certain genes from parents may act together in a way that affects brain development during early life.

People with dyslexia often have other conditions, including dyscalculia (difficulties with numbers), ADD (attention deficit disorder) and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

As this is National Inclusion Week, on Friday 1st October, we are marking it by devoting our Wellness for All webinar to the condition with a presentation by The Dyslexia Association.

The association does great work, providing services and support for children, educators and the wider community, not least employers, helping them in turn support their employees with dyslexia.

As dyslexia is recognised as a disability under the Equality Act 2010, employers have a legal duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to help employees with the condition overcome any disadvantages it causes at work.

But, as the association argues very convincingly, employers are denying themselves if their employees are needlessly hindered in achieving their full potential. That hidden loss also includes the costs to the company of absence, staff turnover and additional time that may be spent on performance management.

With appropriate support, often low-cost, dyslexic employees can be more productive and perform better. It will also avoid the harm to their wellbeing that can result from the stress and potentially low self-esteem trigged by the additional and avoidable difficulties they may encounter in their daily job.

The ‘reasonable adjustments’ at work can range from writing down or emailing all instructions, rather than just giving them verbally, to using coloured paper. Some people may benefit from a bit of support with proofreading or organisational tasks. Tech can also be an aid through various ‘assistive technologies’ provided via computer packages, digital recorders and smart phones. Dragon Naturally Speaking software, for example, allows users to generate text on a computer by speaking into a microphone.

Managers may benefit from training to help them work most effectively with dyslexic employees in their teams. Raising awareness across the workforce is important too, so that colleagues understand the difficulties, and undiagnosed or undeclared dyslexics feel able to seek support.

As mentioned in my previous post about our inclusion and diversity journey at SUEZ, we are now a ‘disability confident’ organisation and a member of the Business Disability Forum. We are also expanding our Inclusion & Diversity network of volunteers and ambassadors who provide mutual support, encourage open discussion, and inform our policies on ethnicity, sexuality, and other issues. One of our new networks will focus on disabilities, both visible and non-visible, including dyslexia.

We are learning by listening to our employees and trying to foster a more inclusive culture informed by their perspectives. As a colleague with dyslexia who recently joined the company told us: “Starting work at any company is daunting but starting at a company with a disability increases your anxiety. However, the work of the Strategic Inclusion and Diversity Group, which includes the UK Board, is really making a difference. I was able to speak with the group’s members about my challenges with dyslexia in a safe space to enable everyone to have a better understanding. They were curious and asked questions as I had encouraged them to, and I was grateful to be given the opportunity to speak and share my lived experience. It made me feel valued and more connected.”

Aside from the ethical argument for enhancing the wellbeing of all employees, and the operational advantages from helping people perform to their best, there is also a wider business case for diversity in general. Teams that are more diverse, with a variety of aptitudes, backgrounds, viewpoints, and ways of thinking are usually more effective.

A growing body of research shows that this diversity can be a well-spring of creativity, enhancing innovation by about 20%, according to one analysis by business consultants Deloitte. Groups with a diverse make-up were also better able to spot risks and get buy-in and trust in their decisions, reducing risk by some 30% as a result.

Another study – of 500 of the top publicly listed companies in the US – reinforced the view that “diverse and inclusive cultures give companies a competitive edge”. The top 20 most diverse companies outperformed the least diverse firms on both share price and operating results over both five and 10-year periods.

The diversity measured in the research can include gender, ethnicity, and other factors, even school or college backgrounds. (A study of venture capital firms found that the more similar the partners, the lower their investment performance – and the researchers found a dramatic difference for all dimensions of diversity).

Neurological diversity (which was the intriguing theme of another of our webinars about living with autism) is yet another dimension. And we know from other research – not just the A-list of famous dyslexic high-achievers – that people with this condition often have other abilities they use to overcome their challenges, and this can bring a whole new way of thinking and a different aptitude to their work as individuals and teammates.

As dyslexics can excel at identifying and remembering complex images and patterns, they tend to see things holistically – the big picture, which is a strategic skill not held by all.

The association between dyslexia and creativity is well known, as so many high-profile figures in the arts are dyslexic. (Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci was probably among their number.)

Often, they are fast problem solvers and think laterally to provide unorthodox solutions, which is great for troubleshooting and innovation.

For these and other reasons, dyslexics are more likely to be successful business-people – a third of American entrepreneurs have dyslexia.

Strategic-thinking, creative, problem-solvers – these are people we need in our ranks if we are to overcome the challenges we face to innovate, decarbonise the resource economy, and be sustainable.

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