Hello PPMA members and friends
Neurodiversity Celebration Week was held recently and as part of that, Kate Enver, who was a participant in our 2021 Peer into The Future cohort and Director of People and Workplace at Queen Elizabeth’s Foundation for Disabled People, wrote the following blog post. In it, Kate reveals her own experiences and challenges of being neurodivergent and shares her strategies, especially in the workplace.
“Being neurodivergent for me means that I often think differently to other people and approach things in a different way. Every neurodivergent person is different and if you know one person who is on the neurodiverse spectrum that does not mean that all people will experience, react or behave in the same way.
There are many different learning difficulties that are included as being neurodivergent Autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Tourette’s Syndrome, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia etc. Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty, which means it causes problems with certain abilities used for learning, such as reading and writing. Unlike a learning disability, intelligence isn’t affected.
What barriers do you face working with dyslexia?
People assume it means you are poor at spelling or that you may not be able to read. People often joke about how they must be dyslexic if they’ve misspelt a word, with the inference that they are not as smart as others. Dyslexia does not mean you are not smart – in fact Einstein was dyslexic. It means your thought processes and communication are often best in different forms. I, like many dyslexic people, suffer with short term memory loss, challenges around planning and organisational skills and understanding information when told verbally. I also have difficulty with information that’s written down, find it hard to carry out a sequence of directions in set orders, as well as reading and writing. In the workplace I have found it hard to remember appointments and estimate how long a task might take, as well as struggle to read documents on the spot or provide written work quickly. This has in the past caused confusion and frustration from non-dyslexic colleagues, however people with dyslexia often have good skills in other areas, such as creative thinking and problem solving.
What are some coping mechanisms you use to support working with dyslexia?
Making time to talk to my team and colleagues to explain my strengths and weaknesses and explain why it helps me to work in a certain way. For planned meetings or events, I always try to make the time to read as much information in advance. For example in my private life my husband is wonderful and always looks up menus which we discuss before going out for dinner. This avoids me looking blankly at the waiter when they ask for my menu choice, as I may not have been able to read or understand it. When something is presented to me that I have to read on the spot, I carry a reading ruler which is a coloured piece of A5 plastic and assists me in reading words on a page. I’m also very comfortable now saying I will take a document away and come back to colleagues with my advice or decision. I find this can take the stress out of situations, as I have found dyslexia is more challenging when I am more tired or stressed.
I use technology to help keep me organised. I share outlook calendars with my family and work colleagues and I set electronic reminders and alarms. Keeping an up to date ‘to do list’ with me that’s separate from meeting notes, means I can jot down things as they come up in conversation. I also utilise spell and grammar checkers on Microsoft packages, with the audio tool so it can read the word out to me so I know the difference in the meanings.
I always ‘share not declare’ I’m dyslexic as it can be a gift not an embarrassment. I have found this paves the way for a discussion and an element of understanding of what it means for you and them. This has ensured I can have a conversation about what I can do, what is a challenge and how they can work with me to ensure I am included and not excluded. A classic requirement is quite working spaces in open plan offices, which are a must for most people with dyslexia to enable us to concentrate, as we often can’t filter out surrounding noise. You don’t need to sit in isolation all the time, but sometimes you just need a quite space when you have to concentrate on something specific, like writing a report or reading and commenting on a document.
I’ve always given myself permission to challenge people if they forget or don’t listen, in a polite way of course. In my managerial and leadership career I have had many instances when people present detailed documents in meetings, expecting me to read, interpret, retain and comment instantly. When I have challenged them many have apologised and agreed to send me things in advance in the future. Where they haven’t and they have been insulting or disrespectful, I have asked them a simple question – ‘If my disability was visible and for example I was a wheelchair user, would they ask me to walk down the stairs?’ Its amazing how powerful that visual realisation is and works to help people change their behaviour towards you.
Where at all possible I also talk through issues, call people, drop by to see them rather than write lengthy emails. It aids communication and builds teams which benefits everyone.
Have felt the need to hide the fact you have dyslexia in the workplace?
No, in fact I have refused to. When I was at school, I received no help I was told I talked too much and did not concentrate. It was the same at university but that was more than 30 years ago now and times have changed drastically. The workplace and employers are legally bound to support people with a disability, and I have gone out of my way to ensure I can tell my employer how I can do the job and how best they can support me to excel in it. In many workplaces the adjustments I have requested have often benefitted the whole team, with non-dyslexic colleagues saying the changing team practices had helped to improve communication, understanding and effectiveness within the team.
Any positive words of wisdom you’d give to someone with dyslexia who might be worried about working?
Get formally assessed and fully understand how dyslexia affects you. Spend some time developing your coping strategies by talking to other dyslexic people for ideas and suggestions. Its nice to realise you are not on your own and others have the same challenges everyday too. Be confident to share that assessment with employers and tell them what you can do and what reasonable adjustments you may need, so they can help you with the things you find more challenging and you can be your whole and best self at work. Disability Confident organisations like QEF are open to support employees with disabilities in the workplace and encourage applicants to ‘share not declare’ your disability so they can support you.
Any advice you would give to employers and managers on working with someone who is dyslexic?
Build the trust and confidence at the beginning by asking a person to ‘share not declare’ their disability with you and ask how you can best support them. This will be a welcome approach for most people with a disability and those with dyslexia. Be prepared to think about assessing people for jobs in a different way, allow candidates 25% more time to complete assessments and once reasonable adjustments are in place, check in with them to see how they are working. For larger organisations, having a staff network for disabled colleagues to come together and discuss how things can be improved within the organisation, as well as senior managers championing disability and diversity in the workplace, goes a long way to building trust and confidence between employees with a disability and their employer.”
Kate Enver, Director of People and Workplace at Queen Elizabeth’s Foundation for Disabled People