The Difficulties of Dyslexia

Dyslexia is quite a common condition. In fact, it’s estimated that 10% of the British workforce may be dyslexic. Back in the day, it was never formally recognised as a medical condition, and individuals who got their letters and numbers mixed up at school were often simply considered to be poor academic achievers. Now individuals get much more help and support when they’re progressing through the education system and are often offered special equipment free of charge to help with their studies as well as extra time in examinations.

The Disability Discrimination Act, (now subsumed into the Equality Act 2010) defines a disabled person as someone with a “physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”. Dyslexia is capable of being a disability, but it depends on the degree to which it affects the person. Most of us who are not suffers think it’s a condition where we write letters the wrong way round. Sometimes it is, but it can have a far greater impact than that. It is a long term learning difficulty that affects skills associated with language. It can affect abilities such as short-term memory, organisational skills and concentration. Sometimes it is associated with other conditions such as dyspraxia (difficulty co-ordinating and organising thoughts and movements) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Like most health conditions it can be mild or acute. So dyslexia may, but does not always affect a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Quite often, the effects are hardly noticeable to even the individual. The recent Northern Ireland tribunal case of O’Neill v Barnardo’s and others, touches upon the dividing line between an individual having a learning disability and simply having difficulty with literacy and numeracy.

Ms O’Neill was a shop assistant who suffered from a cardiac condition. She was unhappy with the way a disciplinary matter was handled, and brought a disability discrimination claim alleging that she had a further disability described as “learning difficulties, difficulty with numeracy or literacy and/or dyslexia”.

The tribunal had to consider whether her disability discrimination claims constituted a disability for the purposes of the legislation. The employer disputed this, although it agreed that her cardiac condition was a disability.

Ms O’Neill had no relevant GP notes or hospital records which might have included a referral to an educational psychologist, course of treatment or consultant’s report. The only example which came close to this was a letter received in 1975 from a paediatrician when she was nine years old, describing her arithmetic as “long behind her chronological age”. The tribunal noted that if Ms O’Neill had a long standing learning disability, the very least it would have expected to see was an educational psychological report or a statement of special educational needs. The employer’s occupational health report also made no mention of a learning disability.

To come within the protection of the legislation, any such adverse impact must be “substantial”. The court noted that Ms O’Neill had difficulty cashing up at the end of the day, but pointed out there are many people who struggle with mathematics on the same level and are not disabled. Ms O’Neill had in fact been able to cope with her cash-handling responsibilities and duties for the past ten years of her employment. She had also acquired certain educational qualifications, even if she had been described as “a dyslexic student” who had “profound difficulties with literacy and numeracy” by her college lecturer.

Although the tribunal awarded £5,000 to Ms O’Neill for injury to feelings in relation to the employer’s failure to make reasonable adjustments for her cardiac conditions, her other disability claims were dismissed.

If one of your employees complains that they have difficulty with maths or reading or writing, then you don’t have to treat them as having a disability unless he or she produces evidence to suggest that this difficulty is as a result of a disability. However, you should make a point of helping them with the areas they are struggling with.

Addressing difficulties early on will show that you’re both supportive and understanding. If the problem could be a disability, then you will be in a better position to understand it and make reasonable adjustments accordingly.

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