As its National Dyslexia Awareness week I’ve been reflecting on my own dyslexia and my daughter Josie showing dyslexic tendencies (*see image above with a translation at the end of the blog). I thought it worth exploring how we benefit from our staff in HMRC digital having the kind of neurodiversity that allows us to develop amazing services, and how as a dyslexic member of staff you can make this work for you.
Mushrooms and mammoths: my theory on dyslexia
It is my personal belief that dyslexia, a bit like handedness, may have an evolutionary aspect. Dyslexics, speaking from my own experience, I think make terrible rule followers but great inventors, so a small cadre of people able to make tools, jigs and innovate outside of the norm would have been a massive advantage to groups of early humans. But the numbers would have been kept low due to early weeding out of the curious and unlucky as they ate the nifty looking mushroom or tripped and fell into a mammoth. It’s my theory anyway.
Many thousands of years later Digital happened and this has turned out to be a perfect place for innovative thinkers to work on interesting problems, allowing us to deliver fabulous services to tight constraints. Our ability to take a sideways look at problems has helped deliver the Government’s strategic ambitions, and there are a surprising number of us busily working away in the background focused on making sure the technology works.
Developing learning strategies
Due to the difficulty of spotting the “borderline” dyslexic early (I was nearly written off as the odd kid who sucked at spelling and ball sports but was weirdly good at sciences and making things), there are probably a lot of us out there who were never formally diagnosed. Some of us may have developed our own learning strategies early enough and found a way to get by in school doing the minimum of the stuff we found tricky while maximising the bit we got praised for. This is a good strategy and only starts to become a problem if you get to a point in your career where simply being good at what you do is not enough to make you good at your job (if that sounds familiar you may want to check out the British Dyslexia Association website).
My own dyslexia was discovered comparatively late (when I was 13, mostly due to my grandfather being pushy, which is what it took in 1987), and after a great deal of extra English classes plus extravagant use of spell checks; this is something that, until recently, I’ve kept fairly quiet about. Certainly, I have never found it to be worth mentioning at interview, but the strengths it gives me are what have always made me useful in the workplace.
Being open about dyslexia
As a general rule, until recently I didn’t even declare it in my diversity details once employed. After all, I managed to get through university without telling anyone so went through a period of regarding myself as “cured”. This was fine when I was a geologist and at the lower levels of being a business analyst, where big picture thinking was needed, but I could leave the wider interactions and the salesmanship to others. And, also, where my work was extremely focused on sorting out one big task, something I am able to do without really trying.
The last ten years have been somewhat different, with leadership and management taking a more prominent role. I’ve had to be more open about what I am bad at and work out new strategies to overcome this. HMRC has been massively supportive, probably without even realising it.
The upsides and downsides
Either because of being wired differently or because of the strategies young dyslexics come up with to work around the things they struggle with, it’s fairly common for a dyslexic to have a few things they’re awesome at. It can take a long time to realise that these are a skill. For many years I just assumed everyone looked at machines and saw parts lists and exploded diagrams, or could drift through multiple iterations to a mechanical problem and tie down the most optimal solution over a cup of tea.
And then there is the downside. Each of us will have a set of things we are really bad at. I am awful at visual recognition, I rarely recognise myself in photographs and beyond broad brush strokes could not describe any of my loved ones to you. If I don’t say hi in the street, it’s not because I’m rude, I wouldn’t notice my own mother out of context.
I am also prone to massively misunderstanding written instructions as I can read them in too many ways - the 25% extra time in my exams was mostly spent crossing out the answer that I had misinterpreted. It is trickier in a work context because there are fewer hints (like number of marks) to go on.
So how do you make dyslexia work for you?
There are many books on the subject and I have found the following high level approaches useful below:
- Discover what you are good at and make it a core plank of your career. For example, my “taking things apart” preference has transferred well across to the business analysis and architecture space
- Focus on how to “sell” your skills. Having a terrific insight is all well and good, but if you can’t pitch it then no one will care
- Use technology to help. Spell Check makes me look professional, there were 32 spelling mistakes in this piece before I hit F7. Also I am shocking at filing and organising my work so I’ve opted for a more technological solution to help with that, a massive inbox capacity and liberal use of the search function
- Work out how you learn best and apply this method to the bits of your role that need the most help. For instance, I am not great at taking a written description of a process and following it. But once I have been through the process I will have learnt it by actually doing
- Let those around you who can help know, and give them a hand understanding how they can help. Most of the people I work with know that I get distracted easily, the kinds of problems I am good at solving and those that I am not, and that an email with lots of disparate requests in it is likely to be less effective than sending me 10 emails with a specific request in each one.
Would I want to be any other way? No, not really. Dyslexia is a massive part of what makes me the way I am and I value the quirky and the whimsical.
Recently my wife was feeling concerned about our child looking like she might also have dyslexia. When I was her age I was kept back a year and yet I still have an MBA from Oxford. Normal is easy to replicate and codify, I firmly believe that dyslexia, managed well, offers a great route to many interesting jobs out there, and I am lucky enough to have it.
Chris Penner, Head of Technical Solutions
*Josie Penner, 6yrs old, likes snails. For those who need a translation: “don’t strangle this snail, give your snail some exercise”.