What are your first thoughts when you hear the word “dyslexic”? Poor spelling? Can’t read? Stupid? It’s ok if that’s what you think because it’s a common misconception.
My name is Erika. I have a first-class degree in Project Management and I was the APM Graduate of the Year 2022. I have dyslexia and dyscalculia. I don’t say this to brag, I say this to show that my dyslexia does not define me and it does not prevent me from achieving great things. It makes it harder, but not impossible.
Dyslexia is more common than people think; around 10% of the population have it, which equates to a whopping 1 in 8 people in the workplace. Some of the most famous and creative individuals of our time are, or were, dyslexic: Richard Branson, Steven Spielberg, Steve Jobs and Walt Disney, just to name a few. It’s also so much more than issues with spelling and reading, with the official definition being: “a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling… features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory, and verbal processing speed." Meanwhile, dyscalculia is a “specific and persistent difficulty in understanding numbers which can lead to a diverse range of difficulties with mathematics." and it’s thought that around 60% of dyslexics also have dyscalculia.
I’ll start with the negatives to get them out the way. Yes, dyslexics are not the best with reading or spelling, but who cares? With the technology we have today, you don’t need to be the quickest reader or be able to spell. I even have software that reads text aloud to me so I can read at a faster pace which means that I don’t have to read the text over and over again to understand what it means, and we all have a spell checker — I even have an advanced version that spell checks everything for me. Dyslexics also have issues with working memory, maths (dyscalculia), organisation, spatial awareness, motor control, listening and visual stress. Visual stress is a big blocker for me which is why I use coloured overlays.
These difficulties can cause lots of issues in the workplace, for example: showing up to meetings late, fatigue caused by having to re-read things, headaches, writing the wrong things in emails or reports, doing something wrong because the instruction was given verbally and reporting the wrong figures at the end of the month because you keep reading the numbers wrong.
What about the good things then? What are dyslexics really good at? We are good at dyslexic thinking. This is a new phrase recently added to the oxford dictionary and as a recognised skill on LinkedIn. Dyslexic thinking is “an approach to problem solving, assessing information, and learning… that involves pattern recognition, spatial reasoning, lateral thinking, and interpersonal communication." Personally, I find that having these skills and strengths are worth the struggles I have in other areas. My dyslexia enables me to have a different view of the world and allows me to see things that others can’t; it helps me tell stories in a different way and it gives me the big picture thinking that I rely on greatly as a Project Manager.
After I was diagnosed, I went down a rabbit hole by reading everything I could about dyslexia. I had so many questions and wanted to know if what I thought was my personality traits or quirks, was actually because of my dyslexia. For my BSc dissertation with the University of Cumbria, I decided to research how dyslexia impacts project professionals. To do this, I identified a range of competencies required for project management and compared these to the strengths and weaknesses of being dyslexic. The research suggested that dyslexia would negatively impact a project professional’s ability to carry out project tasks such as producing project documents, keeping schedules on track and managing project cost. However, it would also positively impact them by making them better communicators and big-picture thinkers.
I also used a questionnaire to understand the experiences of dyslexic project professionals. The questionnaire data concluded that people with dyslexia do not fully understand how their dyslexia effects them at work and they don’t think their employers do either. Not all participants received reasonable adjustments after disclosing their dyslexia to their employer which can be attributed to them not knowing what to ask for (i.e. not understanding what reasonable adjustments they can ask for). It was evident in the data that project professionals fear the stigma that is still associated with dyslexia and unfortunately their fears are substantiated with 37% of participants who had disclosed experiencing this negative stigma from either there employing organisation, or from their colleagues. If people are too fearful to come forward and disclose their dyslexia, they cannot receive the help and support that is available to them which can lead to issues such as poor motivation, low self-esteem and depression.
In a profession which is already highly stressful, employers and line managers of dyslexic project professionals need to ensure that they have the required support to overcome the obstacles that dyslexia causes. The only way to remove the stigma is through education.
To conclude, if you are lucky enough to have someone with dyslexia in your team, tailor their work to harness their strengths and support them to overcome their challenges. Keep in mind that the severity of dyslexia varies from person to person. And if you are dyslexic like me, play it to your strengths, speak openly about your challenges and work with your team and organisation to educate and increase awareness.
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