For Employees

The strengths of dyslexia

Conservative estimates are that one in ten New Zealanders is dyslexic, which means dyslexia is both widespread and an important issue to address in the working environment.

If you have dyslexia, you may be more than familiar with the challenges that this can bring. On the flipside, however, dyslexia can offer great creative strengths – although these may often go unrecognised by individuals who have not fully tuned into or appreciated just how unique their thinking style is.  

In fact, latest international research shows that dyslexic employees can provide just the sort of out-of-the box thinking that businesses need. While reading and writing can be challenging for dyslexic individuals, big picture skills like problem solving, creativity, high level conceptualisation and original insights can be much higher than in the general population.

US psychologist Dr Linda Silverstein, author of Upside-Down Brilliance, has identified the following as basic abilities that characterise dyslexic or visual-spatial thinking:

  • Able to utilise the brain’s ability to alter and create perceptions
  • Think more often in pictures than in words
  • Think and perceive multi-dimensionally, using all the senses
  • Highly intuitive and insightful
  • Great at hands-on tasks and finding out how things work
  • Highly aware of the surrounding environment, great at multi-tasking 

As well as these abilities, a lifetime of having to learn in environments not suited to your thinking style has probably made you extremely resourceful, hardworking and determined – just the sort of qualities that employers’ value. 

As we have outlined in the employers section, that’s probably why Yale’s Dr Sally Shaywitz, has observed that “dyslexics are often represented at the higher levels of a range of professions and are frequently found as leaders in such diverse areas as science, medicine, law, business and writing/literature”.

It might also explain why dyslexic entrepreneurs like Richard BransonCharles SchwabJohn Chambers and William Hewlett have all managed to succeed, despite problems with basic reading and writing skills. Creative stars like Tom Cruise, Keira Knightley and Robin Williams as well as historical figures like Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill were all dyslexic – showing the potential for achievement that dyslexia can bring. 

Here in New Zealand, innovators like Weta Workshop’s Richard Taylor and maverick motorcycle designer, the late John Britten have harnessed dyslexia’s gifts to make their mark internationally. You can find out more about these and other successful New Zealanders with dyslexia here.

New Zealand has always valued innovation, entrepreneurship and good old Kiwi ingenuity, but in the near future these qualities – often associated with dyslexic thinking – will become even more valuable to employers. 

UK research shows that 35% of US entrepreneurs and 20% of UK entrepreneurs are dyslexic – with Sir Richard Branson a famous example. Internationally, leading edge research is focused on the contributions dyslexics can make to workplace and economy. Leading-edge US researcher Tom West argues that humanity is now at the beginning of a major transition, moving from an old world based mainly on words and numbers to a new world where high-level work in all fields will eventually involve insights based on the display and manipulation of complex information using moving computer images. Properly harnessed, he says dyslexic individuals will thrive in this environment, acting as “engines of economic development”.

West, himself diagnosed as dyslexic at the age of 41, has been involved in developing computer graphic and visualization tools to assess these talents, and also looked at patterns of talents seen over generations of families that show dyslexia mixed with high degrees of success in the arts and sciences. He believes that it is time to learn from the distinctive strengths of dyslexics, rather than just focusing on their weaknesses and failures. 

The key to making your dyslexia work for you lies in understanding how it affects your working life, and working with your employer to give yourself the best chance of success. The following pages contain guidance on taking responsibility for your dyslexia, and making the most of the talents and gifts it can bring.

The challenges of dyslexia in the workplace

You probably know from your time at school the way dyslexia can impact on your schoolwork, but having this learning difference affects your life even when you’ve moved into working life. 

There is an old saying that knowledge is power, and this is true both in understanding your thinking style and appreciating the incredible creative strengths it can bring, and in being equipped to deal with other people’s preconceptions and attitudes about dyslexia. 

Dyslexia often impacts much more than literacy and numeracy. The most immediate attribute is a problem decoding words and their meanings, but this is just one aspect of a broader spectrum of issues which may include auditory and information processing, planning and organising, motor skills, short-term memory and information processing. However, dyslexia’s greatest difficulty is self-esteem – it only becomes a disability if not appropriately addressed.

The upside of dyslexia is the ability to perceive the world from many perspectives, allowing visual-spatial thinking and special talents and skills to flourish in fields such as the arts, design, leadership, entrepreneurship, engineering, sciences, business and technology. 

  • Reluctance, embarrassment or avoidance around reading out loud
    On the other hand, it can create the following challenges: 
  • A preference for face-to-face meetings/phone calls rather than email correspondence, and for charts/graphs over text
  • Frequent misspelling of words and mixing up words which sound similar (recession/reception), in speech or written work
  • Poor handwriting, punctuation and grammar
  • Misunderstanding or misinterpretation of managers’ instructions 
  • Problems meeting deadlines, despite working hard

A more detailed checklist, courtesy of the British Dyslexia Association, can be downloaded here.

If any of these challenges sound familiar to you, it’s important for you to know that there are strategies you can employ to deal with them. The crucial thing is that you take responsibility and take action. Detailed information that will support you in this can be found by clicking here. The Dyslexia Foundation also has a wealth of resources and information available at

The British Dyslexia Association also has some useful information on adults and employment, albeit from the UK perspective, click here to view. 

Taking charge and driving workplace change

The challenges of dyslexia are challenges that you can solve, but ideally your employer can help create the best environment for you to do so. If you’ve been having consistent problems with your work, then chances are he/she will welcome an initiative from you to address this.

Schedule a meeting with your employer to discuss your work, or if convenient, use an annual review as a forum for bringing some ideas to the table. At the meeting, let him/her know that you recognise where the problems are occurring, that you feel you have identified where the issue may stem from, and that you’d like them to consider a plan you have for addressing them.

If your employer doesn’t know much about dyslexia, this site and the DFNZ website can be a good place to start for them to find out more. It’s important when you discuss your dyslexia to be clear that you are looking for support in providing solutions. The following phrases might be helpful:

  • I have dyslexia – you might have heard about the problems it can cause with reading and writing, but it also provides some other challenges at work which I’m hoping we can look at addressing …”
  • I have dyslexia – it means my brain works a bit differently to other peoples, making me better at some things and slower at others …”
  • I have dyslexia – I’m keen that it doesn’t affect my performance any longer so I’ve come up with a few ideas for improving the work that I do … “
  • “It can sometimes be a bit embarrassing talking about having dyslexia, so I’ve written down a couple of websites which have some information for employers. I’m hoping you could have a look at them and then we can work together on a way for me to deliver my best at work …”

The good news is that there are a lot of things you can do differently at work to meet the challenges of dyslexia and unlock the unique strengths that you have. We have also outlined these on the employer pages.


Dyslexic individuals typically have trouble reading, writing and processing language as quickly as their colleagues. Securing extra time ‘up front’ for reading necessary material, and organising/requesting deadlines to provide extra time before or after work to catch up if necessary can take pressure off the most challenging aspect of working life, and provide more time and breathing space for contributing to analysis, conceptualisation and problem solving.


A workplace focus on spelling and grammar accuracy can mean you spend too much time on writing and proofing. Suggest to your employer that you ‘buddy up’ with a colleague to help proof-read your work; or request that reduced accuracy is permitted in early versions of your work. Hopefully, this will free you up to focus on the ‘big picture’, and not get bogged down with things like spelling.

Giving instructions

If you have trouble remembering large lists of instructions or information, you may need to agree with your employer to a new format for receiving them. Let them know that you may need them to pause, slow down, or repeat instructions and try to agree to system where they’re happy for you to request this.

Positive feedback

Let your employer know that while you want to know what you’ve done wrong, it’s also good to know what you’re doing right! The more specific they are with good feedback, the better you’ll be able to do it next time.

Encouraging creativity

Look for opportunities to become involved in creative pursuits at work – even if this isn’t naturally part of your job. Volunteer to attend events like brainstorms and ‘blue sky’ meetings to give you an opportunity to contribute out-of-the-box thinking. There are often ‘no wrong answers’ at these sort of meetings, and it should provide an ideal format to share different skills at work.

Look for areas in your own job where you can have a little more freedom to use your creative strengths. Volunteer to head up a social committee, provide first response to IT queries for your department, redesign the office layout, maintain a company ‘Twitter’ profile or lay out the office newsletter – these are all small ways in which ‘regular’ staff members can get an opportunity to spread their creative wings.


While dyslexic employees can be excellent multi-taskers, you may find yourself easily distracted or hypersensitive to many standard features of working life. You may benefit from moving away from a fluorescent light source and into natural light, or away from ringing phones, voices and excessive movement. 

While you might not be able to remove these distractions entirely, your manager may agree that meetings or periods of crucial work would be best held in a quiet conference room or behind a closed office door. Phone diversion and message taking can also be useful from time to time as a means of minimising distractions.

KPIs – Key Performance Indicators

Standard KPIs can be particularly unfriendly to dyslexic employees, and you may wish to talk to your employer to suggest re-drafting them to take your individual strengths and limitations into account, particularly around deadlines and accuracy. Added responsibilities around areas of creativity as outlined above may well provide opportunities to add alternative KPIs to an employment contract or performance review.

Notetaking and Mind Maps

It may well be worth experimenting to develop notetaking techniques which suit you the best. For example, many dyslexics respond well to Mind Maps: you may find details of a meeting easier to recall if you create a box in the centre of the page with the topic of a meeting or a specific task and the date. Each employee is represented by his or her own box. Agreed items and responsibilities are marked with lines connecting them with the right person. Combining various colour codes, the Mind Map makes it easier to prioritise and monitor tasks. For example, those marked in green might require immediate action, whereas those in red need immediate attention.

Internal documents

Many dyslexic individuals have difficulty reading black ink on white paper – particularly the organically whitened paper used in many modern printers and photocopiers. You may well find reading easier by using coloured or off-white paper for notes and printouts. Alternatively, try experimenting with tinted colour overlays placed over white paper to see if it helps.

Many dyslexics prefer sans serif fonts such as Arial, Sassoon and Comic Sans – where possible, convert internal documents into these fonts at 14 point size for your own personal reading.

Assistive technology

There are a range of software and hardware resources listed on the Further Resources page which may help you work more effectively. Calendars, reminder services, text readers and spelling assistance software can all be helpful in areas dyslexic employees find challenging, freeing you up to focus on your strengths.


Many successful dyslexia-friendly workplaces have found that mentoring yields positive results for both dyslexic employees and their mentors. Suggest to your employer that s/he pick a senior staff member to provide regular ‘check-ins’, and who can give encouragement, support and inspiration to help you reach your goals.

Arrange to meet with your employer after, say, one month to review how the changes are going for both of you, and whether further adjustments are necessary. Appropriate ongoing adjustments, combined with personal responsibility and high work standards, can be all you need to lift your performance at work and discover areas in which you can grow and contribute to the business’s success.

There are a number of general adjustments an employer can make around the office to make it dyslexia-friendly. These are listed under the employer section of this website.