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Stories by successful dyslexics who IDC have helped over the years


Coming to terms Dyslexia

 

Philip MacPherson, Chief Information Officer, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

 

When I was asked to write this article, I wasn’t really sure whether I wanted to do it, since writing has never been my forte! In the last few years, though, I have come to realise that avoiding things I don’t like to do only strengthens the mental barriers I have built for myself since I was a child.  If there is one message I want to get across, it is to emphasize the importance of understanding how dyslexia affects you so that you can be conscious in the course of your life about how to work with it.

 

As a child, I was always very creative in my thinking and would play for hours in imaginary worlds. I loved reading, but when it came to writing, I could never quite get my ideas and my thoughts expressed properly.  What would come out would be spider-like, disorganised and generally unintelligible. 

 

I think I was lucky that my junior school teachers referred me to the Borough psychologist where I spent a day looking at dot charts, numbers and answering questions.  It turned out that I had something called “specific learning difficulties”.  I could never quite work out what this meant but in school I was pulled out of lessons to do remedial classes and made to do additional English classes by my parents at the weekends.

 

If anything, my dislike and frustration of writing grew.  I was forced to do handwriting and so reinforcing the very problem they were trying to resolve.  What made it worse was that I believed this affected the way that other kids saw me. At the very least, it made me ‘different’.  Remedial classes and extremely poor handwriting were something to be embarrassed about and to be ridiculed by the other children.  I will always remember the time when a piece of written work that I was really proud of, was put on the classroom wall, but compared to the other kids’ pieces of work, it was an illegible mess.  Nevertheless, I was lucky in that the difficulties I had were recognised, and that the remedial classes (later called special support) continued throughout my school life. 

 

By the time I reached secondary school, I really struggled to produce the work required and my reports were always very poor with the typical phrase “must try harder”.  At that time, my interest in reading exploded and my uncle bought me my first computer (a Commodore 64).  These two things changed me.  At the end of secondary school, my teachers suggested that I only take CSEs but fortunately for me my parents paid for my O-level exams.  They told me that, if I was successful, they would allow me to spend the summer working on an archaeological dig (another developing passion). I was given extra time in my exams and this really did make a difference because it took me longer to produce the work and then to double and triple recheck what I had produced. 

 

At college, I continued to get support from the “learning support team” but the stigma of this still caused me embarrassment in my social life.  But, I had decided that my goal in life was to be an archaeologist and that motivated me in my work. 

 

I did get the grades necessary for me to do a degree in archaeology.  I spent three fantastic years developing analytical skills and doing something I really enjoyed.  However, again, I struggled to produce written work.  My local authority provided me with funds to buy a word processor to help me produce work that at least did not establish preconceptions in the reader before they read the first word of my handwriting.  In the end I got my degree in spite of one tutor who went to great pains to explain that he did not believe in specific learning difficulties and made it clear he thought this was a ruse to give myself an advantage.  Because I had successfully completed my degree I decided triumphantly (and naively) that I had conquered my learning and writing difficulties.

 

I spent 18 months trying desperately to get a job in archaeology and earning money doing anything from cleaner to barman to care assistant.  The point was reinforced when I took a casual  office administrator role and I told my manager that I had been dyslexic only to find the following day my contract terminated. 

 

Eventually, I ended up as a temporary security guard working for the then HM Customs & Excise.  I worked hard and was given a permanent post.  From this point on, I focused on delivering beyond what was required and on building strong relationships with those around me.  This and my interest in computers gave me the opportunity to take a job on the IT helpdesk.  As I developed I became more delivery focused and harnessed my analytical skills and interest in IT.  I moved through Civil Service grades in various government departments, several times taking demotion to allow me to broaden my skills and confidence. 

 

I ended up spending seven very exciting years in 10 Downing Street, delivering all things IT.  For this entire time, I ignored my dyslexia and subconsciously managed around it, choosing roles that allowed my creativity and delivery focus to come to the fore.  I built a strong reputation for myself for combining strong technical and delivery skills.   

 

When I moved on from No 10, I took a job in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  I found myself in an organisation that lived by the written word.  My boss would write me minutes on his thoughts and actions that he would like me to undertake even though we worked in the same room! 

My confidence took a massive dive.  I could not develop a way to deliver in the writing culture I had entered.  I struggled to organise my time as a manager of more than 40 staff and many projects.  And I couldn’t get staff reports completed on time, or found that I needed to be in three places at once.   However, success came because I could think outside the box and challenge accepted norms.  I was a strange beast, in spite of my difficulties, in that I could produce outstanding outcomes because of my strong commercial skills so saving millions of pounds for my organisation.  During this time I kept silent about my difficulties to my manager.

 

Then my boss changed and my new line manager was happy with the high-level outcomes I achieved but increasingly concerned at how some of the basics of organisation and preparation were letting me down.  With mixed emotion, I told my boss that in the past I had something like dyslexia.  He then initiated a process which culminated in a full dyslexia assessment. 

 

At the age of 38, having completed the process and having been told that I was absolutely dyslexic, I had a cathartic experience. The assessment process went beyond diagnosis and treatment, it enabled me to understand why I struggled with my writing and why I found some things more difficult in my professional and personal life. It helped me look at different ways of working and to understand that with the right support and structure, I could be much more effective as a senior manager.  The process was also helpful in that my organisation allowed for specific dyslexia coaching, and this introduced me to methodologies for creating a far greater awareness of how I worked and different ways to be more effective.  For me, this ranged from little practical tips, like the introduction of colour to my calendar and a bigger computer screen, through to getting someone to support me in managing my diary and getting colleagues to re-read documents that I produced. This created time for planning and for taking far greater control of my own time.  Critical to this has been the support of my manager in helping me recognise the issue and take action.  The changes in me have both improved my effectiveness and given me much more awareness of my own ability to work with my dyslexia and still be successful. 

 

Prejudices being what they are leave me to ask myself if, had I been more open and more accepting of my dyslexia instead of running from it, whether I would have got to where I am or not. I really don’t know the answer to that, but for me, now, drawing on all the support available has transformed my experience in the workplace.  Whether or not I choose to tell people/employers in future about my dyslexia, I have learned how to be as effective as anyone else given the opportunity.

 

Now a grown man with three young sons, two of whom are deemed to be dyspraxic by the local authority and probably dyslexic, my experience allows me to support them in every way. That is, not only to seek diagnosis and treatment but also to go beyond that to understand why they have the issues they do, and how they can be sufficiently self-aware to manage themselves in the hope that later on in life, they will have mastered my genetic gifts to them.


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