Guest blog: Time to rethink dyslexia – ability not disability? (28/52)

I am delighted to be sharing this insightful blog from Victoria Tomlinson of Northern Lights PR. Two things immediately strike me about Victoria’s insightful blog. Firstly, her surprise, as a non-dyslexic, on learning that respected people in her network and client base are dyslexic and, secondly, that these individuals, with hidden dyslexia, stand out has having strategic thinking capabilities. At the end of her blog, her growing frustration of our educational and recruitment systems are palpable.

Time to rethink dyslexia – ability not disability?

Until four years ago my understanding of dyslexia was limited. The little I knew was gained from seeing friends of my children given extra time for exams, reading a few articles and hearing the despair of parents who were trying to help their children read or organise their lives.

The last few years have entirely changed my view of dyslexia. I am still no expert but I am left bemused as to why we call dyslexia a ‘disability’ and why our education system tries to shoe-horn everyone into tiny boxes that only suit a few. It seems to me we are missing out on huge talents.

So what changed four years ago?

A very senior and respected professional asked me to help them with their personal branding – to position them for non-executive director positions, write their LinkedIn profile and biographies and give them a focus as they approached headhunters. I had sat on a board with this person for some years, so thought I knew them pretty well.

I didn’t. At our first meeting, they told me, “I am dyslexic, I don’t want to talk about this openly, but what it means is I am an extraordinary problem solver. I seem to be able to look at problems really differently from most people and work out how to solve them, often in minutes. My career has been built on trouble-shooting.”

I was dumb-founded but so much suddenly became clear. They had often sent emails of one or two words which sometimes felt brusque if not rude. Some odd mannerisms now became understandable. And I could pin-point how they had done just this trouble-shooting for our own board, but we had not looked at it in that way.

The amount of work my business is doing with individual directors has grown in the last few years – similar work around personal branding, writing LinkedIn profiles and more. And I could not be more surprised at the number of senior people ‘coming out’ in my office and telling me they are also dyslexic but have never talked publicly about this.

And then earlier this year I read Nigel Lockett’s first blog as The Dyslexic Professor. He had come out.

I have known Nigel for ten years. He has been a client, he appointed me as chair of the advisory board at the University of Leeds, he has been a friend to our business and become a personal friend of mine. I call him one of life’s heroes. Until his article, I had no idea he was dyslexic.

But knowing he is dyslexic got me thinking. All these dyslexics are brilliant and quite outstanding in their fields. They are ‘successful’ by anyone’s standards and they all have something in common. They are innovative problem solvers – they look at the world differently, do things differently and create something very special in the process.

I mentioned some of this to another client recently and she suddenly said, “Oh yes, of course. My son is dyslexic. It’s a nightmare trying to get him through his schooling but at 15 he’s already got two businesses and they are doing well. He’s definitely an entrepreneur, he spots gaps and makes things happen.”

So as an outsider, I am looking at all this and thinking ‘why on earth do we call dyslexia a disability?’ Actually it is a huge ‘ability’ – but no-one is really tapping into this strength. What couldn’t they do to solve half our world’s problems if we only stopped wasting effort trying to straight jacket them into our dull, traditional expectations about reading and writing. Surely in this day and age, we can find a system that can educate these amazing people, but play to their strengths?

As I write this, two stories come to mind. The fantastic Sir Ken Robinson who gave a talk about education undermining creativity rather than nurturing it. I remember he talked about any parent who has two children will know they are completely different – yet come from the same parents, home environment, everything. So why do we force them to be the same through our schooling system? This talk has had 46 million views, yet still nothing changes.

And the other story was about Renee Carayol, a motivational speaker.

The story I remember is when he was working for a global corporate and was top salesman by a mile, year after year. Yet – year after year – in his appraisal his bosses would focus on the areas he was weakest at and his development plans were all about how he could improve these. Never once, he said, did anyone talk about his extraordinary success and discuss how to make more of this or pass it on to others!

All this has left me thinking. Our education system needs overhauling, top to bottom – I know, nothing revolutionary in that. But also, shouldn’t businesses, governments and higher education be actively looking for dyslexic talent to be the innovative and trouble-shooting wisdom we need for the future? Should we specify dyslexia as a key attribute for some of our top jobs?

This final point resonates well with an earlier blog – Vacancy: Dyslexics need only apply.

Nigel Lockett – The Dyslexic Professor
University dyslexia support