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Stories by successful dyslexics who IDC have helped over the years
Coming to terms
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
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
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
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.
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.