Sharon Goldie

As part of the build up to November’s Workplace Equality & Diversity Forum, Sharon Goldie, Dyslexia Specialist & Workplace Consultant at leading assistive technology specialists, iansyst Ltd, explains the importance of offering support to disabled employees and offers some top tips on small steps employers can take to make all the difference.

Employers who are prepared to make small changes to the workplace to support disabled employees will reap the benefits of a happier and more efficient workforce. By making the appropriate provisions for employees with a learning disability such as dyslexia, companies can ensure that the whole workforce is operating at full capacity which, in turn, allows the business to improve its overall performance.

By making reasonable adjustments to support disabled employees, employers encourage a culture of productivity and are more likely to retain staff for longer periods of time – a happy workforce is a loyal workforce.

There are a number of measures that can be taken to enhance the workplace experience for disabled employees. Simply ensuring all company information is accessible is a great first step. Further small changes such as the provision of assistive technologies and implementation of inclusive HR policies can make all the difference to an employee’s professional life. It is crucial that employers develop an inclusive culture in order to ensure that disabled employees feel secure and supported.

This is a legal obligation: under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against current or prospective employees on the basis of any disability and should be a fundamental element of any HR department’s role within a company.

It is important for employers to realise that this obligation extends to ‘hidden’ disabilities that may not have an outward or physical manifestation and can often go unnoticed. Dyslexia is a good example: it is a processing disability that affects people in a number of ways that can often hinder them at work.

There is no connection between the condition and intelligence, however, poor spelling, organisational problems and difficulties with working memory retention are all tell-tale signs. As such, it can be an extremely frustrating condition for an employee because it affects skills that are crucial in the traditional workplace.

The government’s Access to Work scheme offers funding for employers to make adjustments to the work environment in order to better accommodate disabled employees. Although this provision is available, worryingly, the latest Access to Work figures show dyslexia to be hugely under-represented within the initiative. Given that approximately one in ten people have dyslexia, you would expect more than 1,510 workers to have benefited from Access to Work.

The fact that such a relatively low number of people have taken advantage of the scheme implies a continued reticence to reveal the condition. This stems from a lack of information: until companies are properly educated about dyslexia, employees are unlikely to feel comfortable requesting the support they require to do their jobs. Similarly, if businesses do not understand the disability, they are unlikely to be aware of the support that is available to them. It is crucial that employers are educated not only about learning disabilities themselves, but also about the provisions that are available to help employees to deal with them.

Only when employees with learning disabilities feel able to be transparent about their condition at work will individuals and businesses be able to reach their full potential. Whilst it is important that the management team is aware of the disability, all colleagues should have an understanding of the condition in order to facilitate better support and to develop the most efficient way of working as a team. Changes in attitude need to be organisation-wide and it can often prove difficult to alter long-standing work processes – this is especially true for employees of an older generation. As such, re-education is critical to level the playing field in the workplace for those with learning disabilities. Generally, more information is available and businesses are developing a better understanding of learning disabilities and of dyslexia in particular, however, there is still much work to do.

Technology can be an invaluable tool for employees with a learning disability and businesses are already beginning to make use of mainstream technology with assistive functionalities. For example many of the standard IT packages already in use include time management tools that can help those with organisational difficulties. We are seeing increased integration between mainstream and assistive technologies and it is important that employers are made aware of the advantages offered by the assistive elements of standard packages to the whole team. For example, voice recognition may be extremely useful to an employee with a learning disability, but it could also prove useful to the rest of the workforce. Mind-mapping software is another example of technology that has found a niche in the disability market but can be used to great effect by anyone.

As far as specific assistive technologies go, it comes down to individual needs – the employee’s role and difficulties experienced. Companies need to personalise this provision for employees with learning disabilities. A common problem is difficulty with comprehension; it can be hard to understand information in e-mails which is where text-to-speech software can make a world of difference. Text-to-speech software converts written text into spoken words making it more accessible to those with literacy difficulties, enabling employees to operate at full capacity.

If assistive technologies are implemented correctly, they can make a huge difference to the employee in question and to the company as a whole. However, technology cannot be used in isolation; it needs to be deployed alongside other measures such as training and coaching – technology on its own is not enough. Managers need to understand what they can do to support their colleagues. Technology can go some way to making a workplace more inclusive but only in conjunction with a shift in attitude. One trend that is encouraging this change is that of portability: assistive technologies are available on mobile phones – putting support at your fingertips. As the barriers between mainstream and assistive technology continue to break down, solutions become more discreet and normalised and as a result, the workplace will become increasingly inclusive.

Five top tips to make your workplace dyslexia-friendly:

  • Provide company reference documents in a plain, sans-serif font such as Arial, in point size 13 (at least) and on cream paper. Wherever possible, also offer these alternative formats via an intranet that your staff can access easily
  • Ensure all notes and handouts are circulated electronically two to three days prior to meetings
  • Provide all employees with dyslexia awareness training
  • Provide screening in open-plan offices, with plenty of plants (these absorb noise as well as creating a more pleasant environment)
  • Find out about Access to Work and inform new staff about the scheme. Set up a system to make applications easy and effective

For further advice or information on what changes can be made in the workplace to support those with disabilities visit