It’s time to eradicate the negative stigma of dyslexia in the comms industry

Madeleine Weightman, co-founder of The Work Crowd, provides practical tips for agencies to avoid discriminating against people living with dyslexia.

a woman reading a book woman reading a book

I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was about 13 and my sister Alice got the diagnosis at around 11 years of age.

At the time, it wasn’t the school that picked it up, but our mother. Both of us always struggled at school and were in the bottom of the class in terms of performance, however our Mum knew we were bright, so she researched and took us to a local dyslexia institute for testing.

Alice was painfully shy in a classroom environment, and the complete opposite outside of it, she had a huge fear of reading out loud. I think a pivotal turning point for her was going away for two weeks to a dyslexic school, which taught her to pronounce letters phonetically, they also encouraged acting to build confidence. She came back from there a totally different child. Her confidence levels soared, she started creating poetry and reading it out loud to us. This only accelerated her learning and the kid that used to hide under my mum’s skirts was gone.

As for myself, I always struggled in school, as a child I hated it. I would run round the car and have to be forcibly dragged in to get me there. I believe this was because I simply didn’t feel confident in a classroom environment, because I was struggling. elocution lessons and public speaking really helped me and gave me the confidence i needed to cope with my dyslexia. Schools (at least back then) were guilty of pigeon-holing children because they have dyslexia.

During careers counselling, when I said I wanted to do 3 A ‘levels and go to University, I was told this was beyond me (I actually went on to achieve 3 good A Levels and a 2.1 from Edinburgh University!).

As an entrepreneur you need grit and determination. You need to believe you can achieve something when others may feel it’s not possible. These were all lessons I learnt as a dyslexic, fighting through an education system that didn’t, at the time, support me and battling the perceptions of my teachers who simply thought I wasn’t bright enough.

Whilst schools have become more aware of dyslexia and dyslexics needs, so much more needs to change to ensure dyslexics can flourish. Thankfully, technology is replacing a lot of the things that dyslexics are poor at – grammar, spelling etc. while the skills that dyslexics are strong at – creativity, innovation and communication are increasingly in demand.

Drawing upon my own personal experience, I’ve had some thoughts about what agencies can do to be able to benefit from the skills that dyslexic employees bring.

It’s time agencies were inclusive of dyslexics in the interview process

Many dyslexics aren’t upfront about their dyslexia, as a hidden condition it’s something most people try to hide especially at interview stage. But, the Made by Dyslexia (a brilliant charity led by successful dyslexics) campaign is really helping to change this and educate employers about the benefits, like creativity, problem solving and communication skills, that people with dyslexia will bring to an organisation. I certainly wasn’t upfront about my dyslexia at interviews, it was something I hid, I’m pleased this is changing now, but there is still a long way to go to eradicate the stigma entirely.

Therefore, agencies should ensure they don’t make false assumptions about a candidates ability based on their exam grades alone. How people communicate, problem solve and articulate themselves is so much more important today. These are skills many dyslexics will bring to the table, but their exam results or writing tests might suggest otherwise.

For that matter, while I don’t think it is unreasonable to include a written aptitude test in the interview process, why not make this computer-based? After all, there’s hardly an agency in the world handwriting anything now. Spelling and grammar checks have certainly changed the life of dyslexics for the better, so why not give candidates a level playing field in this respect.

Apply diversity and inclusion learnings to neural differences in the hiring process too

This year, we’ve witnessed a tangible movement in our industry and others across the globe in tackling diversity and inclusion within the workplace. While it’s still early stages, we’ll hopefully see all businesses adopt policies and practices that mean we see real positive, systematic change for people who have suffered racial injustice in the world of work.

It’s clear now that businesses need to better represent and reflect their customers, which means respecting, appreciating difference as well as not being biased when hiring based on age, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, education and in the case of dyslexia, neural differences.

There’s a lot of learnings to take from this year’s racial equality movement. We can use it as a force for good to help people who are victims of many different hiring biases. Ideally, we reach a point in the future where dyslexics feel comfortable, without being forced, to share their dyslexia at interview stage without judgement, and that it’s a difference that’s valued by all employers.

Respect the different perspective and way of thinking someone with dyslexia will bring to your team

In this blog by Made by Dyslexia they explain that the dyslexic brain is wired differently, so dyslexics are able to connect stories and see patterns in narratives where others may not, making them adept at understanding big ideas or evolving situations and explaining them to others. Not to mention that  dyslexics generally have huge amounts of emotional intelligence and are naturally very empathetic. Any comms professional should see the value in this way of thinking and what it will bring to teams and clients alike.

Prominent figures coming forward, whether Royalty like Princess Beatrice or entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson, to share their stories of dyslexia helps raise awareness of the skills and talents harboured by people with dyslexia. These personalities showcase that many dyslexics have had to learn to overcome adversity and often had to fight for what they have achieved. They have had to prove people wrong and ignored the critics. These are all hugely important skills to have in life whether in business or if, like Bo Parfet, you want to climb Everest!

I would encourage business leaders and hiring managers in the comms industry to challenge any bias they have towards people with neural differences. It’s about respecting and embracing each other’s differences, whilst being confident they can still do the job well. If we get this right, we create an environment that’s a modern day ‘primordial soup’ in terms of ideas and innovation and will only stand to benefit the comms industry for good.

  • Madeleine Weightman is co-founder of the platform for marketing and comms freelancers, The Work Crowd, which has launched a diversity board with Hanson Search.

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