As youngsters, Thomas Edison, Ted Turner and Charles Schwab felt frustrated. They had difficulty deciphering letters and numbers, and were labeled "stupid." Of course, they were bright enough to invent the light bulb, revolutionize television news and found a groundbreaking brokerage firm. Now we know their problem was dyslexia, not stupidity.
Today's Edisons, Turners and Schwabs are being identified early as having the disorder, which includes problems reading and writing, and poor short-term memory for sequences. Specialists provide coping mechanisms, and dyslexics -- whose learning differences vary from slight to severe -- receive support throughout the educational process. But what happens when they move into the workplace?
"For anyone who wants to be successful, dyslexia is definitely an obstacle," says Debra Brooks, a dyslexic who graduated from Columbia University and now works as a consultant on dyslexia in the workplace. "You have to find ways to do what successful people do."
Accept Your Differences
The first step is "accepting that you'll work differently than most people," Brooks says. She once fielded a call from an engineer who, despite hours of study, had failed a test to advance in his company three times. He wanted to learn how to pass the test, but Brooks told him not to take it the same way again. Instead, she advised him to ask to take it orally or write a paper on the subject. Both accommodations are valid under the Americans with Disabilities Act, she says.
Similarly, the Dyslexic Reader suggests requesting that instructions for tasks be provided orally, either in person, on tape, via voicemail or through a computerized voice synthesizer. Alternatively, because many dyslexics read a computer screen more easily than paper, instructions can be emailed, rather than written down.
Dyslexics often find it difficult to fill out forms. The Reader's answer: Dyslexics can answer questions orally or dictate their responses to a colleague who can fill out the form for them.
Dyslexia-Adults.com offers other suggestions. Dyslexics should break large tasks into small, manageable chunks. The verbal and aural reinforcement of a small tape recorder or dictating machine can help you remember what needs to be done. Additionally, dyslexics should keep a "jobs to-do list" close at hand. They should cross off each task as it's accomplished, and check the list often.
Voice recognition software is improving rapidly. Speaking into a computer is a great boon for dyslexics, whose fear of writing may become paralyzing.
Spell-checkers also help. Programs like Texthelp can help with recalling words that dyslexics frequently misspell and add them to lists for auto-correction. A reading pen (available from Dyslexic.com) can be run over a word that's difficult to decipher. The pen "says" the word out loud or through a small earpiece -- it does not speak entire sentences, however.
Low-tech solutions work too. Examples include highlighters for keywords or rulers to separate lines of figures.
Dyslexia-Adults.com suggests tackling paperwork early in the day. Fatigue adversely affects dyslexics' ability to read, spell and work with numbers. Also helpful: Take short breaks throughout the workday to refresh concentration.
Same Work Standards, Different Approach
From the time of diagnosis, dyslexics should "learn what you can and can't do," Brooks says. "Be honest and upfront with the people you work with. Let them know you work differently -- but you work hard." In fact, she adds, employers and colleagues soon learn that dyslexics are intensely loyal. "We work like dogs."
"These are not ways of hiding behind dyslexia, or making life hard for coworkers," Brooks notes. "The work standards are the same. Dyslexics are just changing the way they meet them."
Schwab, the dyslexic who parlayed his discount brokerage firm into a personal net worth of over $3 billion, gives this advice to those who share his disability: "Find out what you can do well, focus on it and work double hard." Smart words for anyone in the workplace -- dyslexic or not.