Dyslexia is a common learning difficulty which causes problems with reading, writing and spelling. Consequently, dyslexic employees often face particular challenges in the workplace. Employers need to be aware of their legal obligations to avoid discrimination, and also consider going further to assist their employees than the letter of the law requires.
Before considering specific actions that an employer must take, there are some common questions about dyslexia which it may be helpful to answer:
How many people are dyslexic?
Estimates vary but, it is thought that up to 20% of the population exhibit some symptoms, with between 3% and 7% experiencing severe symptoms.
Are certain groups/types of people more likely to be dyslexic?
Previously, it was believed that men were more likely than women to be dyslexic but, it is now thought that the spit is closer to 50/50. The way in which dyslexia manifests itself varies from person to person, it affects people regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity or age and there is no link with intelligence; people with normal (or above average) intelligence can suffer.
Can people stop being dyslexic?
No, it is a life-long condition and people don’t grow out of it. Dyslexia is not an illness so there is no “cure”. However, the earlier it can be diagnosed, the better chance people have of learning to manage their particular difficulties. With increasing awareness in recent years, the diagnoses of children has improved.
Sadly however, there are still many adults who have not been formally diagnosed. Employers need to be aware of this possibility as they often still have a responsibility to make adjustments for disabilities which are not expressly disclosed to them, which are “hidden” to some extent.
Is dyslexia a disability?
The Equality Act 2010 (EA) protects those who fit the legal definition of disability from disability discrimination. A person has a disability under the EA if they have a “physical or mental impairment and the impairment has a substantial and long-term effect on [their] ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.”
While the government’s official guidance does give dyslexia as an example of a developmental impairment which can amount to a disability, each case which comes before an employment tribunal is decided upon its own facts. Just because someone suffers from dyslexia, they will not automatically be protected against disability discrimination (although there will usually be a good argument that they should be).
The key question will be whether a person’s dyslexia has an adverse impact on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities.
It is therefore possible that in cases where the effect of the dyslexia on an employee’s abilities is more minor, an employer might successfully argue that they were not disabled and therefore not protected under the EA disability discrimination laws.
Employer’s duty to make reasonable adjustments
As well as protecting against disability discrimination and harassment, the EA places an obligation on employers to make reasonable adjustments for those who are considered to have a disability, to enable them to overcome their disadvantages at work. Failure to do so can lead to potentially unlimited compensation being awarded by an employment tribunal.
In the right circumstances, someone who is dyslexic will be considered “disabled” and therefore their employer will have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to assist them in performing their duties at work. Failure to do so could potentially result in a discrimination claim.
What if my dyslexia is not severe enough to amount to a disability?
An employer should still be offering support at work, if this is required. Failure to assist an employee in doing their job, once they have asked for help may amount to a breach of trust and confidence. In such a circumstance, the individual would be entitled to resign and claim constructive dismissal, even if the discrimination was unintentional.
Depending on the nature of the employee’s role, the employer could be in breach of their health and safety obligations if they are told about difficulties at work, but fail to look for solutions. The first step for any employee in this situation would be to bring a formal grievance setting out their request for support.
How can employers support dyslexic employees?
Whether or not someone satisfies the legal definition of disability so that reasonable adjustments must be made for them, employers would be advised in all cases to see if there are ways that they can support employees who have dyslexia, in order to help them perform their job more easily.
Examples of reasonable adjustments include:
- providing a colleague to proofread documents,
- relaying instructions verbally as opposed to in writing,
- allowing sufferers to record instructions or meetings instead of writing things down by providing a Dictaphone or digital recording device,
- giving the employee more time to perform written tasks (where their duties involve this).
Employers are also obliged to review whether they have policies which, although they apply to everyone, may be particularly difficult for dyslexic employees to comply with. Failure to do so could potentially be classed as discrimination.
What problems can arise at work for dyslexic employees?
Given the nature of the condition, it is easy to see that a dyslexic employee may encounter problems in the workplace, particularly if their managers either don’t know they have dyslexia or don’t understand the nature of the condition.
For example, a dyslexic employee may take longer to complete tasks, hence missing deadlines, as well as make mistakes with their written work which could cause problems for co-workers or damage the reputation of the business. They could also struggle to fill in forms, meaning they miss out on applying for benefits or promotions. These are all issues which could foreseeably lead to performance management or even disciplinary processes being triggered by the employer.
If the employee is aware of their dyslexia, they are obliged to disclose this as early as possible so that the right adjustments can be made. However, some adults may not be diagnosed and an employer must be aware of the obvious warning signs and should investigate whether this is the underlying cause of any alleged poor performance.
Various organisations can help with identifying whether an individual has indicators of dyslexia (see below).
Case example of dyslexia discrimantion
In the 2016 employment tribunal case of Kumlchew v Starbucks Coffee Company, Starbucks were found to have discriminated against an employee who had dyslexia and who was wrongly accused of falsifying documents.
The employee, whose responsibilities included taking the temperature of fridges and water at specific times and entering the results on a roster, made mistakes as a result of her condition. As a result, her managers removed certain duties from her and she was told to retrain, which she said left her ‘feeling suicidal.’
The tribunal found that Starbucks had failed to make reasonable adjustments at work for the employee’s disability and had therefore discriminated against her because of the effects of her dyslexia.
Should duties be withheld from an employee because they are dyslexic?
There are occasional situations where this is appropriate, but this must always be handled sensitively in order to avoid allegations of discrimination and/or harassment.
Blanket rules preventing certain roles or tasks from being carried out by employees with dyslexia are highly unadvisable. The role, duties, circumstances and effect on the particular employee all have to be considered and discussed with the employee in question before any determination is made regarding what the individual can or cannot do.
Practical tips for employers managing dyslexic employees
- All dyslexic individuals are different, as are their symptoms, so dialogue is important to ensure their needs are being met appropriately.
- Once aware that an employee is dyslexic, an employer should assume it is under a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments and they should consider how best they can support the employee. For example, is there any equipment or training which may help, or can information/instructions be relayed in a different way such as via voice rather than text? Would simply using a different type or size of font help?
- It is not just the dyslexic employee who need to be considered. It is often appropriate to also provide training for other staff about dyslexia awareness.
- Open dialogue with employees is critical. If an employer already has an open and inclusive work culture, employees with any difficulties will be more likely to speak to their manager about any concerns or problems regarding their work which they may be encountering.
Further information on dyslexia at work
There are several organisations which can provide help and advice to individuals and employers about the condition itself, as well discrimination in the workplace. These include The Dyslexia Association, The British Dyslexia Association and Dyslexia Action.