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In 2008, the UK government commissioned an investigation into how to improve provision for children with dyslexia.
The resulting 2009 Rose Report included a definition that has become widely adopted:
Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed. Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities.
Dyslexia is a life-long condition for which an individual’s experience will be unique. It can range from mild to severe and often runs in families. The British Dyslexia Association highlights the importance of remembering that there are positives to ‘thinking differently’, which can be a helpful phrase to remember.
The NHS estimates that 1 in 10 people in the UK has some level of dyslexia. It is therefore likely that this will include a percentage of your current and future employees. Many will have encountered negative responses to their dyslexia from others, ranging from them not taking dyslexia seriously to making incorrect assumptions that it represents reflection of their intellectual ability or capacity.
Having dyslexia can have a significant impact in the workplace. As a responsible employer, you will naturally want to look at what can be done to offer your employees appropriate support. And the reality is that you could find that you are breaking the law by not doing so.
Dyslexia in the workplace: The employers’ responsibilities
One essential piece of information missing from the definition above is that under the Equality Act 2010, dyslexia is considered a disability. As an employer, you, therefore, have two primary legal responsibilities.
First, as a protected characteristic, you must ensure that any staff members who have dyslexia do not experience any discrimination directly related to their learning difference. Second, government guidance makes it very clear that ‘employers must make reasonable adjustments to make sure workers with disabilities are not substantially disadvantaged when doing their jobs.’
Before exploring this further, it might be helpful to provide a few more definitions.
|Disability||The Equality Act 2010 classifies a person as having a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on their ability to do an ordinary daily task.
Substantial is considered ‘more than minor or trivial’, e.g. taking much longer to do something.
Long-term means 12 months or longer.
|Discrimination||Being treated unfairly or unjustly on the grounds of a protected characteristic.
The Equality Act 2010 defines four main types of discrimination:
We look at these in a little more detail later. And for even more information, please see our guide to discrimination.
|Protected characteristics||These are: age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership, and pregnancy and maternity.|
|Reasonable adjustments||Steps employers must take to ‘make sure workers with disabilities, or physical or mental health conditions, are not substantially disadvantaged when doing their jobs.’|
It is worth noting that the Equality Act 2010 does not apply to Northern Ireland. Separate guidance is available, which broadly covers the same principles of good practice. This is based on the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which applied across the United Kingdom before the introduction of the Equality Act 2010.
Let’s look at how an employer can navigate these requirements and provide a better working environment that is discrimination-free for its employees who have dyslexia.
An essential point of legislation in the Equality Act 2010 is the rules around asking employees or potential employees direct, personal questions about protected characteristics. You may not ask, for example, whether an individual has dyslexia. It is for them to disclose this information to you and is entirely at their discretion.
There is very helpful government guidance available on this subject, which includes circumstances under which you might ask specific questions. Being such a sensitive area of law that is open to interpretation, I would recommend avoiding this if at all possible. In the section on recruitment, you will see an example of how direct questioning can be avoided without inadvertently disadvantaging a prospective employee.
What dyslexia-related discrimination might look like
Direct discrimination occurs when you are treated differently due to a protected characteristic, which results in a disadvantage to you.
- Your employer making assumptions about your abilities when you apply for an internal promotion and offering the position to an underqualified co-worker with significantly less experience.
- Only offering certain training opportunities to other employees based on a prejudgement of your capacity to engage with the content.
- Always giving written tasks to a co-worker, believing you to be incapable of achieving work to the same standard, narrowing the experience you are gaining in the role and providing the co-worker with more opportunities.
Indirect discrimination occurs when you are treated in the same way as everyone else, but this puts you at a disadvantage (essentially a sign that reasonable adjustments have not been made!)
- At a weekly meeting, lengthy minutes are routinely circulated on arrival and feedback is expected within the meeting during which the minutes are ratified. Dyslexia for you might mean that you find scanning a document tricky, particularly while keeping up with the meeting’s proceedings at the same time.
- At 4 pm, an exciting internal opportunity is announced. To be considered, an employee must have a handwritten personal statement on the boss’s desk by 8 am the following day.
Harassment is any unwanted behaviour that relates to a protected characteristic (or is sexual). Perpetrators often try to shrug it off as banter, which is no longer considered a defence for this behaviour.
- With dyslexia, harassment is often linked to outdated views expressed verbally. “When I was at school, you didn’t have dyslexia* you were just slow, etc.”
- Audibly commenting when you are taking a bit of extra time to read or process something. Or saying things like: “You’d better not give it to them to do if you want it before tomorrow morning/next week etc.”
When discussing dyslexia, it is generally no longer considered appropriate to describe someone as ‘dyslexic’ or to describe them as ‘suffering’ from dyslexia.
You may find that a colleague with dyslexia references it in a self-deprecating way. That is never an indication that you have permission to reference their dyslexia in a light-hearted or jokey manner.
Victimisation occurs when an employee experiences disadvantage, damage, harm or loss due to making a complaint of discrimination or inequality or gives evidence/supports another employee’s case. This applies at all levels up to and including raising an employment tribunal claim.
In 2016, a Starbucks employee with dyslexia won a disability discrimination case against their employer . As well as finding that Starbucks had failed to make reasonable adjustments for the employee’s disability and had been discriminatory because of the effects of the dyslexia, they also found them to have victimised her and to have little awareness of equality issues.
There is no set formula for these as the required adjustments will vary considerably from employee to employee. The good news is the costs for appropriate measures are generally low, and the employee will have a good knowledge of their specific learning differences and ways to work alongside them.
No list can even be close to exhaustive, but here are some relatively common examples:
- Use of different coloured paper (which also applies to the background colour of emails, online documents and presentations), most commonly off-white, yellow or blue.
- Using sans serif fonts (such as Arial) in size 12 or larger. Do not italicise or underline text and embolden text for emphasis.
- Providing a digital recorder to record notes.
- Investing in speech-to-text and text-to-speech software.
- Providing verbal instructions when possible.
- Thinking about the layouts and content of meaty documents – using tables, bulleted lists etc. Avoid left- and right-justified text.
- Allowing extra time for specific tasks.
- Ensuring that documents that require input or feedback are received in good time.
- Using pictures and diagrams.
The BBC combined forces with Dyslexia Action and the British Dyslexia Association and compiled an excellent guide to adjustments an employer can make.
A critical point for further consideration is your employment process.
Improving your recruitment process
The potential for discrimination starts with the recruitment process and ends sometime after employment has ceased. Let’s consider a job advert. Discrimination in some protected characteristics is more straightforward to spot than in others. This example should give you an idea:
We are seeking an athletic, healthy young man to join our outward bounds adventures sales team. This role would suit a recent graduate living in the Oxford area.
To be an effective sales team member, is athletic prowess necessary? Do you need to be male? 21 years old? None of these or the other suggested requirements could be considered non-discriminatory. Thinking of some of the reasonable adjustments we explored earlier, what might you now consider reviewing in your standard job advertisement template? Or even job descriptions or job packs?
When considering an advertisement in relation to potential candidates with dyslexia, there are many things you can consider that will improve accessibility to the text. These include background colour, font type and size and layout, and text organisation. As with much good practice in this area, you will often find changes you make in many areas are actually sensible decisions that benefit everyone.
For many roles, the recruitment process involves some form of assessment. These are usually vital means of assessing the suitability of a candidate. Examples might include responding to a written communication, analysing some data or even an aptitude test.
This is an area where you might interpret the government guidance to mean you could ask candidates whether they have dyslexia (on the grounds of making a reasonable adjustment potentially). I would not recommend this approach.
It would be better to give all candidates a decent level of information about such tasks, days in advance of the interview. You can then invite them to let you know if there is anything you can do or put in place to improve accessibility to the task for them.
Such a prompt demonstrates your commitment to providing a fair process. It also offers an opportunity for candidates to let you know about their dyslexia, while feeling in control of the information, how and when it is delivered.
An early discussion is in both the employee and employer’s best interest. If candidates can feel comfortable doing this as part of the recruitment process, they are protected by the employer’s legal responsibility to act. And as a result, the employer benefits from seeing the candidate’s best work.
Advice for employees with dyslexia
- Let your employer know so that appropriate support can be put in place.
- Try not to feel self-conscious about it – it is your right and your employer’s responsibility.
- Don’t be frightened to ask for help or review the adjustments if they aren’t quite working.
If you feel that you have experienced discrimination, there is a wealth of professional advice available online (see links below).
Depending on the circumstances, the potential steps might be:
- Informal discussion with your manager or Human Resources (HR).
- Formal grievance complaint. Ensure you get a copy of your employer’s written grievance procedure (this may be available in the company handbook, through HR, or it may form part of your contract of employment). Your complaint would be made in writing.
- A meeting with your employer to discuss your complaint.
- A written response from your employer.
- If you are unhappy with this, there should be a process of appeal laid out.
- Failing this, then you can take your employer to an employment tribunal.
More information on these processes is available from: