Last month’s article on the inaugural Dyslexia in Engineering Day brought a host of responses. Here Steve Gill introduces a particularly compelling testimony from former CIBSE President Andy Ford.
The theme for this year’s Dyslexia Awareness Week is ‘Dyslexia Creates’- looking at the power of dyslexia to create ideas, organisations and society and the invaluable contribution this makes to our world. This fits perfectly with the launch of the inaugural Dyslexia in Engineering Day on 9 October.
Dyslexia is invisible. It is often intentionally hidden by those around us for a variety of personal reasons. Since the article in last month’s RAC, I have received over 200 messages many of which wish to remain hidden.
An aim of Dyslexia in Engineering is to make the invisible visible so that we can better understand the creative potential as well as the challenges faced by individuals. The process of ‘coming-out’ may itself be a challenge.
This is wonderfully illustrated by this example from Professor Andy Ford, Director Research and Enterprise in School of Built Environment and Architecture at London South Bank University. Andy is a past-President of CIBSE, well-known for his highly respected work on innovative buildings and regularly speaks on low energy and sustainable futures around the world. His speciality lies within the integration of creative and sustainable low energy design solutions. The journey he has taken is thus all the more compelling:
I am Dyslexic. There I have said it and now everyone will know.
I have spent a lifetime hiding this but now it is time to get you ‘normal’ people to grasp what it is like to be dyslexic and why it is as much a gift as it is a curse.
My life at school was a constant time of failing or scraping through.
Teachers looked on me as lazy or ‘in a dream’ then puzzling why when I took IQ tests (of which I took many) I did well.
‘Could do better’ was written on every report I can ever remember. So the first thing to get clear is that intelligence and dyslexia are not one and the same, after all the most famous dyslexic of all was Albert Einstein, but we are spread across the whole population.
University was not much better, I got there after a second attempt at A levels and scraped through with a Third.
Did I mention having changed schools and skipping a year and taking A levels for the first time age 16 (good IQ tests again) even after failing my eleven plus? I was very lucky my grandfather paid for my secondary education after this and I remain acutely aware that most are not so lucky.
I always wanted to be an engineer. I, like many others like me, have always found understanding how things work a simple matter. Indeed, as I have got older I have also begun to realise the harder the problem, the more I relish finding the simple answer. But I know many ‘normal’ people just cannot do this, even if deemed academically exceptional and marvellous at crosswords. When I look at something, I see its inner workings.
I see the way things connect, which bit to hit or which step to take to reach an end. This is the dyslexic engineer trait and it is one of the reasons I consider my disability is a gift.
Of course poorly managed in a business it can get you into trouble for taking short cuts, but the important point is that managed well it can enable a business to blossom.
So the next thing to understand if you are dyslexic, or if you now recognise you have one working for you, is how do you enable them to excel.
The best answer I say, is to give them freedom to innovate - match them with others who have the different missing skills and build a culture of respect for all individual traits.
A dyslexic is not just somebody with a difficulty in spelling and reading. They have a different brain that can take leaps but struggles to explain and document in words. Wise leaders understand this and set things up to take advantage.
Otherwise if hemmed in, they will leave and set up on their own as a boss running their own company - finding their own support mechanisms, removing the psychological barriers placed in front of them by those who ‘just don’t get it.’
If you had told me at age 11 or 17 or 21, as I crashed my way through education, that one day I would have run an award-winning company; been president of an institution; and ended my career as a professor leading research at a university respected for its engineering, I would have struggled to believe you. But it would have helped to know people believed in me. There are others out there like me who just need the space and support of good managers to thrive.
Dyslexia is a gift as much as a curse: set up your dyslexic employees and colleagues to brainstorm the complex problems we face today and you will see.