Different .. is positive
How do we recognise, support and celebrate difference in each other and in the workplace? How do we make sure we are truly inclusive?
Neurodiversity Celebration Week gives us the chance to ask ourselves these questions, but they're the sorts of things we want to think about all year round.
We spoke to our Contact Centre manager Jess Sugden about her experiences, from her point of view as a team manager, and as a statemented dyslexic.
From when I was in primary school I have always known I was dyslexic – it was a term that was understood and used by everyone. I couldn’t read fully until I was 10 or 11, and I was statemented at age 11.
While she is quite severely dyslexic, Jess’ struggles with spelling and writing in class were masked to an extent by her intelligence, and so, she says, she didn’t receive much help at all through secondary school.
"It has always been there, and always been a part of me, but when I was younger it used to make me feel really angry. My twin brother was in my class and would always get better grades, and that would really frustrate me, I’d think it just wasn’t fair."
Jess failed her GCSEs the first time round, something she puts down not to her dyslexia but to ‘not doing any work’ – however she does wonder if her anger and self-image were the barrier.
“I went to sixth form college and it was a completely different environment, they were incredibly supportive and gave me lots of extra lessons. My teachers there helped me to be able to get onto paper what I wanted to say. I passed my GCSEs and went on to get straight As at A Level.”
Jess’ experience highlights how much the attitudes and words of influential figures can stick with a person – for good or for bad.
“After our A levels one of my primary school teachers came into the shop where I had a part-time job and said ‘you beat the cleverest girl in your year – I’m really surprised you managed to do that!’
For me that has always been a really big thing: this idea that because you’re dyslexic, you’re not very bright.
"I do still get that a lot – surprise from people because I ‘don’t sound dyslexic’. I was continually told I’d get marked down a couple of grades because of my dyslexia – but it didn’t happen. All of that stuff did make me quite angry, and quite embarrassed.”
Conversely, positive reinforcement and higher expectations from teachers later in her life helped to turn this around.
“I was lucky to come from parents who always told me I could achieve what I wanted. And my sixth form teachers gave me the support, and the push, to use the brain I had.
If it weren’t for them I don’t think I would be doing what I’m doing now.”
Jess had two very different experiences of higher education.
“I went to university when I was 18 and completed a degree in History. I then went back in my 30s to study HR as it was related to my job. The difference between going to university in my teens and then in my 30s was the help that was given had changed so much. I was given extra support lessons, a laptop and Dragon software. The first time I went I was given nothing.”
Jess worked as a customer services manager in retail, before joining The Advocacy People around five years ago.
She feels strongly that while it’s obviously up to individual people how much about themselves they want to disclose, a more open discussion about neurodiversity in the workplace can be helpful.
We’re very used to our clients having vulnerabilities, but perhaps not so used to the people we work with having vulnerabilities.
“If people know about it, then they are aware. I feel that all organisations would benefit from being more mindful about the language people use and how they communicate around things like spelling, for example, before making judgements. We all do it, and it’s never meant nastily, but we just need to check ourselves.”
Jess says that becoming a parent and discovering that her son is dyslexic has done a lot to change her mindset.
“Having Hugo and trying to keep him positive has changed my attitude towards it, I’ve done a lot of reading around neurodiversity and learned about the ways dyslexic people think.
“From what I’ve read and from my own experience of myself and the other people I know I would say dyslexic people are very good at seeing the whole. Rather than get bedded down in the little bits, we see the overall picture, the connections between things and how the different parts work together.
“Dyslexic people are good at understanding and interacting with people, and have good emotional intelligence.
“For me, inclusion in the workplace is understanding and using the strengths and differences in your team. People have complimentary skills and these fit together to make the whole."
People do view the world differently and the ideas they come with are very different – and that’s a positive, not a negative.