For Employers

The business case for support

Conservative estimates are that one in ten New Zealanders is dyslexic, which means that if yours is a medium to large size business, you’ll almost certainly have one or more dyslexic employees on your payroll. Many people with a dyslexic learning difference may not have been formally diagnosed, and often potential employees are unlikely to bring it up in a job interview, fearing it will be misunderstood or seen as a barrier to employment.

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 this, a lifetime of having to learn in environments not suited to their thinking style means that dyslexic employees often develop compensatory characteristics, such as becoming extremely resourceful, hardworking and determined – just the sort of qualities that employers cry out for in the workplace! 

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. 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

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.

If you’re lucky enough to have dyslexic people working for you, this webspace provides a wealth of information on how you can help them manifest their full potential and add value to your business.

‘Notice and Adjust’ – Creating a new business reality

Dyslexia is an alternative or atypical way of thinking which can also be characterised as a learning preference, meaning that dyslexics naturally prefer to receive, process and present information in the way that makes more sense to them. Ongoing brain research, including studies from Yale and Auckland universities, has shown that while most people use the ‘verbal’ left side of our brain to understand words, dyslexic people use the ‘pictorial’ right side – making them slower to process and understand language, but stronger in creative areas like problem solving, empathy and lateral thinking.

With adjustments in the expectations and management style of employers, dyslexic employees can thrive and excel. Key to this is a fundamental principle of ‘Notice and Adjust’. This approach, which underlines major Dyslexia Foundation initiatives, is all about constructive action in the here and now. 

Adopting this mantra in the workplace is as simple as noticing which employees might benefit from a dyslexia-friendly management approach, and adjusting instructions and expectations accordingly. 

Notice – Recognising Dyslexia 

Dyslexia wasn’t officially recognised by the New Zealand Government until 2007, so unfortunately the school experience for many dyslexic New Zealanders was (and often continues to be) one of frustration, helplessness and failure. By the time they reach the workforce, many dyslexics have developed highly evolved methods for ignoring, hiding or ‘working around’ their dyslexia, meaning that their workmates and employers may not know they have the condition.

In some cases, the dyslexic employee may not even know themselves – a history of academic failure and frustration may have led them to mistakenly believe that they are ‘stupid’ or ‘beyond help’.

 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.
Signs that one of your employees may have dyslexia, and therefore benefit from an adjusted management style include:

  • Reluctance, embarrassment or avoidance around reading out loud
  • 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.

A common strategy for working around dyslexic-like learning differences is repetition and memorisation/rote learning of key words and sentences. At work, this might manifest in unusually long working hours, extreme fatigue brought on by reading or intense private work sessions ahead of key presentations and meetings.

Mistakes, work avoidance and a perceived lack of attention to detail can be frustrating for both employer and employee – and can mistakenly create an impression that a dyslexic worker is unmotivated or even lazy. In fact, the opposite is often the case – with some simple adjustments in the workplace, employers can help dyslexic employees to fully contribute to overall business success.

Adjust – Making Dyslexia Work

If you suspect that one of your employees may have dyslexia, it is generally useful to begin by having an informal chat. This may involve asking whether they have ever considered that some of the issues they face at work may be related to dyslexia – and letting them know that you’re keen to understand how you can help. 

In larger organisations, this conversation may be something a manager and human resources representative can both attend – or you may elect to have one senior member of the organisation responsible for your corporate dyslexia policy, and identifying individuals to whom it may apply.

If the individual considers themselves dyslexic, this initial chat can be a very positive experience – learning that their manager or employer is dyslexia aware and open to working with their learning preference can immediately dispel any feelings of lingering embarrassment or shame they might be experiencing.

If the employee hasn’t been identified as dyslexic before, this initial discussion can also be very beneficial. Many adult dyslexics report that identifying and naming their dyslexia for the first time was extremely liberating – suddenly a lifelong feeling of fearing or suspecting that they were different is replaced with understanding that their brain simply works differently. When accompanied by the right information about the creative gifts and strengths that dyslexia provides, the moment of discovery can feel like the beginning of a whole new life. 

The Dyslexia Foundation website has a wealth of information for dyslexics, including inspiring stories from New Zealanders – such as Weta Workshop founder Richard Taylor – who have overcome learning issues to achieve great success click hereto check this page.

The Dyslexia Foundation is focused on constructive action to effect change, and encourages New Zealanders with dyslexia to take personal responsibility for overcoming its challenges and discovering its gifts. Employers can help with this by providing the right framework of support for dyslexic individuals in the workplace.

While all employees have different needs the following adjustments can have an immediate and positive impact on quality of work and job satisfaction:

Structuring the workload

Dyslexic individuals typically have trouble reading, writing and processing language as quickly as their colleagues. Providing extra time ‘up front’ for reading necessary material, and structuring deadlines to provide extra time can take pressure off the most challenging aspect of working life, and provide more time and breathing space for contributing to the analysis, conceptualisation and problem solving typically required at a later stage of project work. 

Encourage dyslexic employees to structure their day in a way that suits their thinking style – with challenging tasks like technical reading reserved for the morning when they are more alert than later in the day.

> Proof-reading

An excessive focus on spelling and grammar accuracy can result in a disproportionate amount of time being spent on writing and proofing. Consider pairing up dyslexic employees with other colleagues for proofreading or encouraging a first draft in which a reduced accuracy is required. These adjustments will ensure that the right amount of energy is focused on ‘big picture’ skills and contributions.

> Giving instructions

Due to the atypical way in which a dyslexic brain works, an employee with this learning difference can become overwhelmed by information more easily than his/her colleagues. Typically, this happens when they are presented with a great deal of information or instruction at once, or when this material is presented too quickly. 

When delivering instructions, it is helpful to break them into ‘chunks’ – speaking slowly and pausing after each chunk of information to ensure it has been understood and retained. Having the patience to repeat or reinforce instructions if necessary can relieve pressure on a dyslexic employee who is unsure what is expected of him/her, but is too embarrassed or afraid to ask for the information again.

Positive feedback

People with dyslexia may be used to hearing about the things they’ve done wrong, and feelings of inadequacy can be deeply ingrained. Help foster the strengths of dyslexic staff members by giving positive feedback on specific things they’ve done well.

Encouraging creativity

Look for opportunities to involve dyslexic employees in creative projects – even if this isn’t naturally part of their job. Inviting staff members with dyslexia to attend events like brainstorms and ‘blue sky’ meetings can provide them with an opportunity to share their out-of-the-box thinking and talent for high level conceptualisation. You may need to let them know that there are ‘no wrong answers’ in these sorts of meetings, and ideally their presence will be pitched to colleagues as an attempt to involve a variety of brains, rather than as a dyslexia-specific accommodation.

Also look for areas in their own jobs where dyslexic employees can have a little more freedom to use their creative strengths. Heading up a social committee, heading up IT queries for their department, redesigning the office layout, maintaining a company ‘Twitter’ profile or laying out the office newsletter 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, many are also easily distracted or hypersensitive to many standard features of working life. Many dyslexic individuals will benefit from moving away from a fluorescent light source and into natural light, while others will work much better away from ringing phones, voices and excessive movement.

It may not be possible to remove these distractions entirely, but an awareness of the potential impact on dyslexic employees may suggest that meetings or periods of crucial work are 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

Be aware that standard KPIs can be particularly unfriendly to dyslexic employees, and consider re-drafting them to take the individual employee’s 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

Support dyslexic staff members to develop notetaking techniques which suit them. For example, many dyslexics respond well to Mind Maps: they may find details of a meeting easier to recall if they 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 prioritize 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 can make reading easier for them by providing notes and printouts on coloured or off-white paper. Alternatively, provide dyslexic employees with tinted colour overlays and encourage them to place it over white paper to see if it helps.

Dyslexics generally prefer sans serif fonts such as Arial, Sassoon and Comic Sans – where possible, use these fonts at 14 point size for internal documents, to assist with ease of reading. 1.5 spacing also helps. 

Assistive technology

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


Many successful dyslexia-friendly workplaces have found that mentoring yields positive results for both dyslexic employees and their mentors. Pick a senior staff member to provide regular ‘check-ins’, and who can give encouragement, support and inspiration to dyslexic employees determined to reach their goals.

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

General adjustments in the workplace

For wider staff and future employees, some general adjustments to the workplace environment can make your business more dyslexia-friendly, and thereby lift the performance of all your staff:

  • Leave some dyslexia brochures in the staffroom or smoko area for staff members to read during their breaks – if the brochure isn’t relevant to them, it may well be for someone they know. You can order at or download brochures here.
  • Encourage short breaks and have water easily available to staff
  • Try including diagrams or pictures in written and oral presentations – they’ll make your ideas more concrete, not just for picture thinkers, but for everyone listening
  • Supply written instructions for new tasks and have a format for written reports and job lists
  • Always give an overview – state the ‘big picture’ outcome
  • Ask for ideas verbally – either individually or in small groups
  • Colour code items 
  • Create checklists to help with organisation and sequence
  • Keep operating instructions in large lettering near fax or copier, and for important details like computer logins for presentations
  • Create daily/weekly/monthly work plans and schedules
  • Invite an expert to talk to staff to increase awareness about dyslexia