Imagine this. You look at a chunk of text and the letters and words wriggle about, making it impossible to figure out what they mean. Perhaps you struggle to read aloud or can’t read quickly. You could have a hard time carrying out a set of directions or learning a sequence like the days of the week. You might write unusually slowly or have poor handwriting.
This is dyslexia, a learning difficulty affecting around 10-15% of us of every age, from every background and every culture. While it can cause distress, it can also be enormously positive. Let’s explore dyslexia, what it means to those living with it, and what managers, coaches and mentors can do to support dyslexic employees.
Dyslexia isn’t about intelligence. It isn’t an illness either. People are born with it. And like most of the things we call ‘learning difficulties’, everyone’s experience is different. Some struggle with reading and writing, others can’t easily do maths, and many dyslexic people find it hard to remember things.
The condition happens because of differences in the areas of the brain responsible for language, and the connections between them. It can often run in the family and affects people of every age, in every country.
Dyslexia can’t be cured. But it can be managed intelligently, compassionately and positively, and dyslexic people can become just as successful as anyone else. Take Sir Richard Branson, clearly a successful human being in anyone’s book, and the musician Freya Ridings, who actually describes her own dyslexia as a ‘superpower’.
The positive aspects of dyslexia
The dyslexia advocate and educator Dean Bragonier sees the condition as a powerful tool. A dyslexic himself, he works hard to create systemic change in the way dyslexic people are treated. He and his team at Harvard University, Tufts University and the Carroll School are creating new ways to teach, focusing on the neurological strengths of the dyslexic mind. So what gifts can it bring?
The way dyslexic people’s brains are wired delivers significant cognitive advantages. They can look at a situation and identify different bits of information that blend into a narrative that others can’t see. This can translate into an exceptional level of success in entrepreneurship, engineering, architecture and the arts.
Albert Einstein was dyslexic. So were Kennedy, Picasso, and DaVinci, all of whom qualify as fully empowered dyslexic people. In fact a whopping 35% of all entrepreneurs are dyslexic, as are 40% of self-made millionaires and 50% of NASA’s rocket scientists. In fact it is so common at MIT that they affectionately call it ‘MIT disease’.
Bragonier believes introducing dyslexics to the awesome cognitive skill set they have is the right way to approach things, rather than trying to force them to learn how to do things the non-dyslexic way. It isn’t about fixing a lack, it’s about encouraging abundance, inspiring people to know they’re special in a good way. In his words, “I can attest that once you’ve got a captive dyslexic, they are ravenous; they are thirsty; they’ve built up this moxie and this grit, and then, all of a sudden, you’re revealing something that they’re better at against their peers – this is a brand-new message.”
Harvard, MIT and Stanford University have already made excellent inroads. Their unique edX internet platform provides what they call MOOCs; Massively Open Online Curricula, featuring socially responsible Open Source software. It’s free for anyone, anywhere, to use to create MOOCs of their own. Users can consume information via video, audio, graphics and pictorial representations, allowing them to learn freely without having to read.
You might like to watch Dean Bragonier’s excellent TEDx talk – The True Gifts of a Dyslexic Mind.
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So how can we unlock all this amazing dyslexic potential in our role as a coach, mentor or manager?
How to unlock the potential of dyslexic employees
Employees with dyslexia can struggle to read dense text, find spelling hard, and experience acronyms as baffling. Instructions, addresses, appointments, map reading, feeling overwhelmed by information, making clear communications, it can all be very hard. But it’s perfectly possible to achieve excellent performance thanks to unusual abilities around lateral thinking, holistic thinking, creativity and innovation. ‘Thinking outside of the box’ describes it pretty well, enabling people to see situations from very different angles.
You might want to consider giving dedicated support via relaxation training, helping your employee tackle their unique work challenges calmly.
Mind-mapping software is a great way to organise information, screen readers support reading and writing, and recording meetings instead of writing notes can be a life-changer. Interestingly, colour is powerful stuff. While white can be far too bright for comfort, a coloured background to text can be remarkably helpful whether it’s on paper or on-screen.
You probably know yourself how awful it feels to be rushed. Dyslexic people benefit from more time, regular breaks, peace, and privacy, all of which allow them to understand, process, and complete their work without information overload. Something as simple as a calendar helps people manage their time better. A breakout room might be all it needs to change someone’s world for the better and boost their performance at work.
The opportunity to uniquely contribute
When you do all this, provide regular feedback, and give people a forum for discussing how they feel, you’ll help dyslexic employees to contribute more significantly. They will have an opportunity to make the most of their skills, abilities, and unique take on life. Adding real value by coming up with different ways of looking at things, new ideas and creative business solutions.