Not all disabilities are visible. It is estimated that 1 in 5 people have some form of neurodiverse condition, whether this be dyslexia, autism, ADHD or another condition. Often, as these conditions are invisible or are misconceived, people are either not aware of their condition or are hesitant to disclose to get the support they are entitled to.
I am an Associate lawyer at the international law firm CMS. I studied History and Politics at the University of Sheffield, where I also did my law conversion GDL and LPC. I was diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age, however due to my mindset at the time I did not disclose this to anyone at school. I found myself working harder than everyone else, yet not achieving grades that quite reflected this effort.
When I started work in 2018, I still did not fully disclose my dyslexia. However, within a couple weeks working at a top law firm I soon realised that if I wanted to progress and keep up in a career in law, I needed to disclose my disability to my employer.
I am very fortunate to be working in an incredibly supportive environment. When I first disclosed my dyslexia, the partner I was working under insisted I receive the adjustments I needed. In this blog, I would like to focus on 5 key tips and reasons to disclose a disability/ neurodiversity, as well as offer some advice about how to go about this.
These facets are: mindset, positivity, responsibility, fairness and wellbeing
My mindset held me back from disclosing my dyslexia at school. I always felt like I did not want to stand out and be one of the students sat at the front of the exam hall for extra time or other reasonable adjustments. I viewed my dyslexia negatively, as something that made me different rather than as a potential strength.
Because of this mindset, I developed insecurities about my abilities at school. I was resilient and worked hard but it affected my confidence to partake in some extracurricular activities at school, such as debating. I saw my dyslexia as a reason to work harder and tried to ignore the impact it was having on my progress and wellbeing.
My mindset changed once I learnt to accept my dyslexia. I realised that most of my strengths, and even aspects of my personality, were a result of my dyslexia and how it has even helped me to achieve a career in law. This realisation and acceptance, I believe, is a crucial step to take before disclosing a disability to your workplace.
I have also realised that accepting your own disability/ neurodiversity can lead to huge positive changes in the way people treat you. Through running Neurodiversity focused events at CMS, I have seen first hand how willing people are to learn about and accept disability or neurodiverse conditions, especially those who are indirectly affected by them through friends or family. I have come to appreciate how understanding people can truly be, and I have never had any negativity come from disclosing my dyslexia.
Businesses and organisations are rightly putting more emphasis on diversity and inclusion. Fairness and inclusivity is only part of the factor for this. It is proven that a more diverse workforce can lead to greater efficiency, creativity, and results for a business. However, in my opinion, a major factor of diversity is people thinking differently due to their experiences, values, and backgrounds. Neurodiversity and dyslexia is exactly this – it is a condition that makes you think differently, band this should not be seen as a negative. Once you change your mindset, it will enable you to see your differences more positively, which in turn can enable you to realise your true strengths and potential.
As mentioned above, I used to see my dyslexia in a wholly negative light. I have now realised the strengths and positives that I have because of it, many of which have contributed massively to my success. My dyslexia has led to improved emotional intelligence, empathy, listening, and self-awareness. These skills become essential in the workplace as exams become a thing of the past.
A key skill of any lawyer is attention to detail, something which on the face of it should be hindered by my dyslexia. However, I’ve come to learn that my dyslexia has actually improved my attention to detail. I am aware I can make mistakes and have become more resilient when they do happen. It also means I am aware I need to be scrupulous with my work, paying attention to the detail in every situation whether it is a legal document or an email.
Once I saw my dyslexia as a positive and disclosed my condition, I became aware that I had subconsciously focused on other areas, such as social skills or presentation skills, to ‘counteract’ my perceived weaker skills, such as writing. I have come to realise the importance of “soft skills” like emotional intelligence and the impact they can have on your development and progression. Once you change your mindset and start to truly recognise the positives you will start to see your disability or neurodiversity as a superpower, rather than a weakness.
When discussing fairness, I like to use the analogy of a 400m race. The competitors have a staggered start, not because the abilities of the athletes are different but because the layout of the track means a staggered start ensures everyone runs the same distance on a track and the race is fair.
The same principle applies to reasonable adjustments. Many people don’t realise that they are not only entitled to them, but employers legally have a duty of care to provide these adjustments to those who need them. Section 6 of the Equality Act 2010 has a broad definition of what qualifies as a “disability”. The Act puts a legal obligation on employers to make reasonable adjustments in a timely manner to those who are entitled to them.
For example, as a reasonable adjustment, I have specialist software to assist me at work. This includes text to speech software and an enhanced spell checker which keeps a record of my common errors and learns from them.
In the same way that a staggered start in a track race ensures the event is fair, disclosing your disability to an employer can ensure the workplace environment is fair for all employees to work to the best of their abilities.
When I disclosed my dyslexia at work, I was told was that while it was not an issue currently, if I did not have adjustments or systems of working in place by the time I had I finished my training contract, it could potentially become an issue / challenge for me.
There are two sides to this responsibility; whilst your employers have a responsibility and duty of care to provide the support and adjustments you need, in my opinion, you also have responsibility to accept your ‘differences’ and mitigate any impacts of them, while also finding the strengths and positive attributes you have as a result of them. Whilst whether to disclose or not can be a nerve-wracking and deeply personal decision, you have a responsibility to yourself as well as your employer. You have to be willing to accept the help.
The responsibility does not, and should not, all fall on you. At the same time, it cannot fall on someone else and be used as an excuse for things not working; both the employer and employee have to work together.
Wellbeing and mental health are becoming increasingly prioritised, but often aspects of a disability or neurodiversity can impact your mental health and feelings of self-doubt.
I believe that everyone, at every level, has some feeling of Imposter Syndrome. This can be heightened through your disability leading to doubts and insecurities which might make you think that you do not deserve your role and/or that you can’t progress in your career. Disclosing your disability can help to mitigate this imposter syndrome on a personal level and may help give you the validation that you can truly thrive in your workplace.
Further to this, disclosing your disability can also make you more confident in yourself and your perception of how others view you. I have found disclosing my dyslexia to take a huge amount of weight off my shoulders.
Some other tips:
What/how much information should I share?
Many people get nervous about oversharing with their employers. It is important to remember that you only have to disclose what you are comfortable sharing and what will ensure you get the support you need. With dyslexia, it also important to know that you do not need to have a clinical diagnosis to gain this support. I was given a workplace assessment through which my employers could ascertain what adjustments should be put in place for me. My assessor through this process also inspired me to see how positive my dyslexia really is and helped me realised the strengths I had as a result of it. You do not need to disclose everything at once, rather see this as the start of an open communication with your employer.
Who should I go to when disclosing my disability?
This is very dependent on your situation. In my case, I had a supervisor who I went to first, and they helped me contact HR who advised on next steps. I think many people will be amazed at how many people are willing to help if you ask or just have a coffee and a chat. If you are unsure who to go to, asking is always a useful thing to do, the worst they can say is no!
When is the right time?
I always think the earlier the better with disclosing disabilities. If we were to spend our time waiting for the right time, we would never get round to it. In my case, I told my supervisor when on the train back from a work event. For such a personal conversation having a one-to-one conversation in person or over the phone will be much more beneficial than communication through email.
I hope this can help you in your journey to disclose your disability/ neurodiversity. Remember, there are always positives and strengths to be found within disabilities and disclosing them within your place of work will always allow you to work to your full potential.