Five ways to help a dyslexic person in the workplace

By Victoria King
BBC News

Published
Image source, Thinkstock

A dyslexic woman, Meseret Kumulchew, has won a disability discrimination case against her employer, Starbucks. She said that with some relatively straightforward adjustments she could have fulfilled her role successfully, but those were never made.

So what sort of adjustments can an employer make to help a dyslexic person?

'Show and Tell'

Like many dyslexic people, Meseret Kumulchew describes herself as a visual learner. As such, dyslexic people often cope better with verbal instructions than written ones, and need a task to be demonstrated physically, perhaps several times, rather than just described.

As the British Dyslexic Association puts it: "Don't expect them to remember it off the top of their head, as many people with dyslexia have difficulty storing and processing information in this way."

In that vein, employers can record messages or meetings so the dyslexic person can return to them when needed. If they can present information in a diagram or picture, all the better.

Catherine Wright, north and central regional manager for Dyslexia Action, says: "Old-fashioned 'chalk and talk' isn't effective. People need to be shown things, walked through them and given time to learn.

"It's like learning to drive - eventually it will become ingrained. But each time they have a new skill to learn, it's almost like starting again, so they'll need to be given that time again."

If you have to write it down, do it right

The way information is presented can make a huge difference to dyslexic people who find reading difficult:

Image caption,
A BBC web page - normal and distraction-free

Ms Wright says: "Use cream paper rather than white.

"There's only one thing in nature that's pure white - snow - and we wear goggles when we look at it.

"For slower readers like dyslexics, who struggle to stay focused, the visual strain from white paper can make things much harder.

"Similarly, justified text [aligned to both margins] is an absolute nightmare for dyslexics.

"Often all someone will see is just rivers of white.

"So don't justify text."

Keeping written memos or web pages as simple as possible can really help too, and employers can offer staff distraction-free or readability plug-ins for their computers.

These are programs that strip out unnecessary furniture from a page, leaving just the text that matters.

A very basic word processor will, in a similar vein, probably make life easier than one with umpteen toolbars and menus.

Time and space

On the subject of distractions, dyslexic people may benefit from having their workspace as calm as possible, for example, away from doors, thoroughfares or constantly ringing phones.

Something as simple as a second screen for a person's computer will allow them to get rid of anything extraneous and focus on the task in hand.

Simon Lydiard, a senior civil servant at the Department for Transport and ambassador for Dyslexia Action, says: "I need to work in a really quiet space so I don't get other data interfering in the process I'm thinking about.

"The really important thing is to recognise that if you need to work differently, then you have to work differently.

"I know, for example, that I do take more time than other people to do things, but I try to organise my work so that isn't an impediment.

" I actually have to work longer hours, but that's the sort of compromise you need to make to operate at the sort of level I do."

Use technology

There are lots of tools out there that can help a dyslexic person.

Mr Lydiard says: "I've got dictation software, and I very carefully use online diaries and give myself reminders about important events or work that needs doing. I also make sure I get documents in the right form so I can zoom right in and make the text big."

All modern tablets, smartphones and computers come with a synthetic voice that can read out a document or web page, sparing someone the difficulty of reading it themselves. For help reading something on paper, special scanning pens can convert written words and turn them into audio.

Talking calculators and alarm watches can also help people who struggle with numbers or telling the time, and even something as simple as a good spellchecker can make someone's life easier.

A second pair of eyes

Image source, Thinkstock

A computer spellchecker is one thing, but a human proof-reader is even better.

The support of their team can make all the difference to a dyslexic person's experience at work: everything from providing information to them in the right format - no Times New Roman, please - to checking key decisions before they are made.

To that end, the British Dyslexic Association advocates training for everyone working with a dyslexic person, not just the individual themselves.

"Take nursing and medicine," says Ms Wright.

"Maybe somewhere like [an accident and emergency department] isn't right for a dyslexic person because of the pressure, but elsewhere, reasonable adjustments are perfectly possible.

"If you have to do something like give an injection, you just ask someone to quickly check it beforehand."

Ms Wright says the focus should be on the things someone can do, rather than what they cannot.

"Ninety per cent of being a nurse or doctor is caring, and they've got absolutely no problem with that," she adds.

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