IT Help for Employers and the Workplace
Dyslexia is likely to be one of the most common disabilities affecting your employees. According to the British Dyslexia Association, around 10% of people are dyslexic with about 4% (one in twenty-five) severely affected. How can you, as an employer, help them?
This article was originally written for the BDA Handbook 2005
Dyslexia is likely to be one of the most common disabilities affecting your employees. According to the British Dyslexia Association, around 10% of people are dyslexic with about 4% (one in twenty-five) severely affected. Dyslexic employees have different difficulties and some often surprisingly useful abilities to match. People with dyslexia most typically have difficulties when it comes to: reading, writing and learning; remembering; structuring and organising; and reading maps.
In the workplace this can lead to problems with written communication with colleagues and other stakeholders; with organising work; and with reading instructions. Most dyslexia in employment is probably hidden. Dyslexic people will often:
- choose a job where their dyslexic difficulties are least likely to cause problems
- not declare their dyslexia for fear that it will affect their career progress
- not realise that they are dyslexic as it has never been diagnosed
- or, if they know they are dyslexic, not realise that dyslexia is a reportable disability
The Benefits of Dyslexia
On the plus side, dyslexic people often have strengths in seeing the overall picture, in solving problems quickly and in visual skills. However, their difficulties can lead to unemployment or underemployment. By becoming a dyslexia-friendly workplace you can tap into a large underutilised resource and make the most of all employees’ abilities.
There is much that employers can do to make the work environment easier for dyslexic employees. The BDA have detailed guidelines for being a dyslexia friendly employer. For example, it is good policy to make sure that all your literature, internal as well as external, electronic as well as paper based, is in plain English and dyslexia friendly. The BDA also have good guidelines on presentation. Many aspects of these will benefit your non dyslexic staff; and improve your communication with customers (remembering that a good few of them are likely to dyslexic too). It will be worth following the guidelines in:
- recruitment policies and procedures
- reviews and appraisals
- personnel and support
One other thing to consider to make your organisation disability and dyslexia friendly is having a website and intranet that are accessible to people with reading impairments. The Office of the e-Envoy has a set of Guidelines for UK government websites which are excellent for any organisation aiming to satisfy the DDA. Unfortunately they are not keeping these up to date. You can also use Texthelp’s BrowseAloud so that people can listen to your web site, as well as read it. There are more suggestions (NB PAS 78) on our Accessibility page.
There’s a carrot; it is good policy to do so, and you will be maximising your use of your staff. But there is a stick too: The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is now in force and will be used by employees who believe that they are being discriminated against because of their dyslexia. And because dyslexia is a ‘hidden disability’ you may not be aware which of your staff are dyslexic and the act still applies to them even if they have not declared their dyslexia.
Access to Work:
The DDA says that you must make “reasonable adjustments”. This will often include technological support; computer, specialist software and other electronic aids and gadgets. In many cases in the UK you will be able to get financial support from the Department for Work and Pensions’ (Jobcentre Plus) Access to Work scheme for the adjustments that you make for dyslexic staff.
This process takes a little time, but the person gets a proper assessment of their strengths and weaknesses and recommendations of specific adjustments, including technology, that will help overcome the difficulties. This will usually produce much better results than a few ad hoc adjustments.
The technology assessment may recommend a variety of tools depending on the person’s job and their needs. A computer: on their own, editing and spellchecking can make a huge difference to the ability to write. A laptop is often appropriate so that notes can be taken anywhere and work done at home or whilst travelling. Even with the help of technology, dyslexic people will usually need longer to produce the same amount of written material. And many find producing good work in a busy open-plan office difficult.
Just having access to a custom set up computer with a word processing application can improve the performance of a person with dyslexia. The possibility of editing and spellchecking can make a huge difference to the ability to write. A laptop is often appropriate so that notes can be taken anywhere and work done at home or whilst travelling.
Computers are not the whole story. There are many more ICT options available both in software and hardware. This section looks at some of the most popular and practical solutions for overcoming difficulties associated with dyslexia in the workplace.
Turning text into speech
For proofreading and for reading text on the computer use text-to-speech software. Add a scanner and optical character recognition software (OCR) for converting print into an electronic version that you can listen to. Texthelp Read & Write Gold is the classic tool for dyslexia. It includes text-to-speech and OCR. It also has a dyslexia specific phonetic spell checker, word prediction, help with homophones, a thesaurus, a dictionary, and research and web search tools.
Dictating into your computer
Speech recognition software can be easier than typing and makes spelling mistakes a thing of the past. With training and practice, text can be composed quicker than it can be typed. The current market-leader is Dragon NaturallySpeaking. The Preferred version is aimed at small-businesses and is fine if you only want to use it with Microsoft Office.
If you want to dictate into other applications such as contact managers or bespoke applications you will need the Professional version, which includes macro tools enabling it to be used with virtually any program.
However, there are issues to do with privacy, composing and proofreading which mean that speech recognition is not an automatic panacea. With a portable digital recorder, you can dictate away from your computer and then transcribe it through Dragon later.
Concept mapping software
Many people with dyslexia do not like organising information and ideas in a linear fashion. Concept mapping software allows you to use your visual skills to organise existing knowledge and ideas, and to plan new writing and projects.
Software packages such as MindGenius for Business and Mind Manager have been designed as business tools and can used for planning and creating presentations, for brain storming, and for report and project planning. There is also a version of MindGenius for use in education.
PDAs for organising time and remembering things
Time management and organisation can be as much an issue as literacy in the workplace, particularly if your job involves working in different locations, travelling a lot or being away from a computer. Personal Digital Assistants Assistants, running on either the Pocket PC operating systems provide pocket-sized devices with many tools including:
- calendar with alarm function
- to-do list
- contact list
- memo pad
- word processor and spreadsheet applications
They can also be used to take notes by adding a folding keyboard. There are literally thousands of applications available for them - from specialist dictionaries to concept mapping programs. Many mobile phones now come with similar organisational tools and have the added bonus of being able to download emails or access the internet while you are on the move.
Recorder/dictating machines for notes and memos
These small devices can record discussions so that you can refer to them later; ideal if you find it difficult taking notes during meetings. You can also use them with speech recognition software to transcribe your own voice notes. Some voice recorders can also store MP3 or other audio files, so you can listen to audio books or recordings of your documents (which you can create with Read & Write Gold) while on the go. If you find that you forget information quickly then you may find a voice memo useful. These can record short messages and most mobile phones or PDAs now include this function.
Satellite navigation system
Many people with dyslexia find it difficult to remember directions or read road signs quickly enough. For jobs that involve a lot of travelling a satellite navigation system, added to an iPAQ PDA (or installed in the car), will give you directions as you drive.
These small devices allow you to store printed text, such as business cards, quotes and web links, by running the tip of the pen over the text, and then transferring it directly to the computer. This makes copying errors less likely. The latest model, the ReadingPen TS (Oxford Dictionary), can also read aloud scanned-in sentences to help overcome reading or pronunciation difficulties as well as containing a number of dictionaries covering a wide range of topics.
Join the DisInEmp forum if you have a professional interest in Disability in Employment (including dyslexia). It’s a source of mutual help for meeting DDA needs.
Peter Rainger’s paper ‘A Dyslexic Perspective on e-Content Accessibility’ explains how dyslexia affects web use and what you can do to make sites easier to use.
Written by Ian Litterick and Abi James, November 2004. Updated July 2006