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Dyslexics in digital

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Childs drawing of a snail on a brightly coloured striped backgroundAs its National Dyslexia Awareness week I’ve been reflecting on my own dyslexia and my daughter Josie showing dyslexic tendencies (*see image above with a translation at the end of the blog). I thought it worth exploring how we benefit from our staff in HMRC digital having the kind of neurodiversity that allows us to develop amazing services, and how as a dyslexic member of staff you can make this work for you.

Mushrooms and mammoths: my theory on dyslexia

It is my personal belief that dyslexia, a bit like handedness, may have an evolutionary aspect. Dyslexics, speaking from my own experience, I think make terrible rule followers but great inventors, so a small cadre of people able to make tools, jigs and innovate outside of the norm would have been a massive advantage to groups of early humans. But the numbers would have been kept low due to early weeding out of the curious and unlucky as they ate the nifty looking mushroom or tripped and fell into a mammoth. It’s my theory anyway.

Many thousands of years later Digital happened and this has turned out to be a perfect place for innovative thinkers to work on interesting problems, allowing us to deliver fabulous services to tight constraints. Our ability to take a sideways look at problems has helped deliver the Government’s strategic ambitions, and there are a surprising number of us busily working away in the background focused on making sure the technology works.

Developing learning strategies

Due to the difficulty of spotting the “borderline” dyslexic early (I was nearly written off as the odd kid who sucked at spelling and ball sports but was weirdly good at sciences and making things), there are probably a lot of us out there who were never formally diagnosed. Some of us may have developed our own learning strategies early enough and found a way to get by in school doing the minimum of the stuff we found tricky while maximising the bit we got praised for. This is a good strategy and only starts to become a problem if you get to a point in your career where simply being good at what you do is not enough to make you good at your job (if that sounds familiar you may want to check out the British Dyslexia Association website).

My own dyslexia was discovered comparatively late (when I was 13, mostly due to my grandfather being pushy, which is what it took in 1987), and after a great deal of extra English classes plus extravagant use of spell checks; this is something that, until recently, I’ve kept fairly quiet about. Certainly, I have never found it to be worth mentioning at interview, but the strengths it gives me are what have always made me useful in the workplace.

Being open about dyslexia

As a general rule, until recently I didn’t even declare it in my diversity details once employed. After all, I managed to get through university without telling anyone so went through a period of regarding myself as “cured”. This was fine when I was a geologist and at the lower levels of being a business analyst, where big picture thinking was needed, but I could leave the wider interactions and the salesmanship to others. And, also, where my work was extremely focused on sorting out one big task, something I am able to do without really trying.

The last ten years have been somewhat different, with leadership and management taking a more prominent role. I’ve had to be more open about what I am bad at and work out new strategies to overcome this. HMRC has been massively supportive, probably without even realising it.

The upsides and downsides

Either because of being wired differently or because of the strategies young dyslexics come up with to work around the things they struggle with, it’s fairly common for a dyslexic to have a few things they’re awesome at. It can take a long time to realise that these are a skill. For many years I just assumed everyone looked at machines and saw parts lists and exploded diagrams, or could drift through multiple iterations to a mechanical problem and tie down the most optimal solution over a cup of tea.

And then there is the downside. Each of us will have a set of things we are really bad at. I am awful at visual recognition, I rarely recognise myself in photographs and beyond broad brush strokes could not describe any of my loved ones to you. If I don’t say hi in the street, it’s not because I’m rude, I wouldn’t notice my own mother out of context.

I am also prone to massively misunderstanding written instructions as I can read them in too many ways - the 25% extra time in my exams was mostly spent crossing out the answer that I had misinterpreted. It is trickier in a work context because there are fewer hints (like number of marks) to go on.

So how do you make dyslexia work for you?

There are many books on the subject and I have found the following high level approaches useful below:

  • Discover what you are good at and make it a core plank of your career. For example, my “taking things apart” preference has transferred well across to the business analysis and architecture space
  • Focus on how to “sell” your skills. Having a terrific insight is all well and good, but if you can’t pitch it then no one will care
  • Use technology to help. Spell Check makes me look professional, there were 32 spelling mistakes in this piece before I hit F7. Also I am shocking at filing and organising my work so I’ve opted for a more technological solution to help with that, a massive inbox capacity and liberal use of the search function
  • Work out how you learn best and apply this method to the bits of your role that need the most help. For instance, I am not great at taking a written description of a process and following it. But once I have been through the process I will have learnt it by actually doing
  • Let those around you who can help know, and give them a hand understanding how they can help. Most of the people I work with know that I get distracted easily, the kinds of problems I am good at solving and those that I am not, and that an email with lots of disparate requests in it is likely to be less effective than sending me 10 emails with a specific request in each one.

Would I want to be any other way? No, not really. Dyslexia is a massive part of what makes me the way I am and I value the quirky and the whimsical.

Head and shoulders picture of Chris PennerRecently my wife was feeling concerned about our child looking like she might also have dyslexia. When I was her age I was kept back a year and yet I still have an MBA from Oxford. Normal is easy to replicate and codify, I firmly believe that dyslexia, managed well, offers a great route to many interesting jobs out there, and I am lucky enough to have it.

Chris Penner, Head of Technical Solutions

*Josie Penner, 6yrs old, likes snails. For those who need a translation: “don’t strangle this snail, give your snail some exercise”.


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  1. Comment by Tracy posted on

    Thank you for writing this article Chris, I really enjoyed reading it. I too have a dyslexic daughter which was only acknowledged and finally diagnosed after I had continually pushed our local Secondary School to assess her and provide the extra support that I knew she needed. It was a tough journey sometimes, we only received formal confirmation that she would receive the 25% extra time for her GCSEs a few weeks before she actually sat the exams! Despite having to overcome these hurdles she did brillantly and gained 9 GCSEs and has recently started 6th Form where is is studying 3 A Levels. With continued support and coaching, she has developed into a young lady who was once embarrased about having dyslexia but who now embraces the fact that she is who she is... and that is a beautiful young lady who might not be the best speller or reader in the world but wow can she dance, having represented England at the World Dance Championships in America earlier this year.

  2. Comment by Vivian Boateng posted on

    Thank you for this Chris. I'm very please with the way you and your wife are helping out with your daughter's dyslexia. I didn't get that kind of help and support from my parents. I was branded as lazy when I was facing challenges with my spellings. This has caused me a lot of
    set-backs in my education and career path.

  3. Comment by Helen posted on

    Thank you for your honesty, I am dyslexic and work in communications. Many find it strange I write for a living especially when I do not understand syntax and apostrophes confound me.

    I now, too, see it as an advantage and I have started identifying as disabled in the work D&I surveys. I am proud of my dyslexia, but I have also had to come to terms with the fact that it is a disability, it means that I cannot conform with the perceived normal and I need assistance. But my uniqueness has enabled me to do many wonderful things. It is part of me, it does not define me, but it may define how I do things.

    My mum had to fight for my diagnosis after being told she needed to accept that her child was just remedial, she would have accepted that but knew it was something different. Like you it was back when no-one knew what it was or if they did it was something boys suffered with.

    I have a lot to thank Professor Margaret Newton, who sadly passed a few years ago, she was the leading academic in dyslexia and took on my case. Back then you were dyslexic but across different areas, now with more research they have been able to identify different strands such as dyslexia, dyscalculic, dyspraxia and Irene Syndrome. Numbers is about the only thing I do not struggle with.

    In my experience people do not understand or comprehend the type of disability it is. It is over simplified to you can’t read or write, they fail to recognise it is how our brains work but that is also its gift. That slight genetic kink that led to the great radical thinkers such as Leonardo Da Vinci or Einstein backs up your opinion of it being an evolutionary advantage.

    This kink allows me to process visually, specifically in 3D colour coded mind maps. An ability to see links that sometimes my colleagues miss. I believe they see my analytical thinking approach to creativity as an advantage. It doesn’t stop the moments where I cannot understand how they cannot see the links and visa versa – but you don’t have to have dyslexia to have healthy creative differences in work.

  4. Comment by Stefano Latini posted on

    What you write, the lines with which you draw your life and the lives you observe convey me feelings of strength, of visions that go beyond the common standard but not for this they remain behind, indeed, they go beyond it. I mirror and compare myself with your written lines, yet unfortunately I do not think I can get even half of your elevate vision. However, thank you for what you transmit and share.


  5. Comment by Holly posted on

    Thanks for this article. As another dyslexic working in digital, it really resonated with me (particularly the not following the rules part ?). For me, my dyslexia particularly manifests around slow auditory processing amongst other things, but I'm very strong at visual thinking and the post -it note and more visual style that tends to accompany agile ways of working works great for me personally. I don't view dyslexia as a disability, more a different way of seeing the world and neuro- diversity when used well can only strengthen the collective intelligence of a group.

    I think it's great for others to know that dyslexia isn't just about reading and spelling.

  6. Comment by Neil Robertson posted on

    An awesome article, and many of your points resonate with myself, differently, to the point I wonder whether we are all multi-faceted tangles with no “normal”.
    I read very slowly, my memory for names and faces ain’t good, and I need to work through technical routines several times before the answer becomes embedded, I also need to keep doing the routines or they vanish, so having recently been shoehorned into a fast changing IT technical support area was not a winner. Things need to be linear, flash back scenes or concurrent storylines in films leave me literally switching off, I need tiny in-boxes with everything pigeonholed – my way.
    Strangely I spent the first two days of a Prince2 course – the breaking down, naming, layering of processes bored out my skull, project management came as second nature to me – isn’t it too everyone – and my early career was in civil engineering. It was applying the (pointless) new nomenclature and pedantic subtle Prince specifics that took time.
    The lightbulb moment for me was when, 5 years ago, at the age of 58 I almost by accident got a diagnosis of HFA (High Functioning Autism) or Aspergers.
    This solved nothing but explained an awful lot.
    I wish youngsters well if they get early recognition and good support of which there is far too little. My support was an A4 trifold leaflet with a few links to self-help groups and websites. Thankfully my employer now, this year, (but too late to help me much) is starting to waken up to the enormity of the mental health condition as opposed to illness problem, helped I think by some very senior staff having suffered short term mental health issues in the past and is doing sterling work in support structures and networks, still with a way to go.
    Thank you again – hope you can accept the digression, I think the more we open out the faster we will all progress.

  7. Comment by James Bloom posted on

    Thanks for writing this great article. I too am dyslexic and have a similar experience. My father was too so I'm assuming my son may be. I agree, as you've said, I wouldn't change being dyslexic. Some of my skills are definitely much weaker than others, but many skills are much stronger. Fortunately, the stronger skills really help with the things I chosen to focus on it my life, such as my IT career.

    It good to hear someone has had a similar experience, not least the extra tuition and coping strategies as a young child just to get through education. It is particularly interesting to hear your similar back story as we have worked together before in HMRC and it doesn’t surprise me at all that your dyslexic from the positive interactions we always had.

  8. Comment by Sarah Jones posted on

    This is great Chris! Thanks for sharing.

    I'm dyslexic too and very embarrassingly face-blind. I unintentionally found lots of ways to work around my symptoms, which successful hid them from people for many years, so I didn't learn there was a reason why I was struggling until I was at Uni.

    I was diagnosed aged 20 after reading a familiar-sounding leaflet about dyslexia that was being handed out by my student union. Despite reading Maths at Oxford, I'd always just assumed I was a bit stupid.

    How common is the link between dyslexia and being face-blind? It's so reassuring to know it's not just me!

  9. Comment by Alan (Gwen's husband) posted on

    I've read this article a few times and each time I've connected with another part of it. It really strikes a chord.
    Discovering (admitting) I was dyslexic has been a weight off my shoulders. Aside from never wanting to admit a weakness I never saw what I 'suffer' from as dyslexia. What I do and how my mind works does not fit into what I was told dyslexia is. Back in the 70's and 80's it was all about letters moving around randomly on a page.
    Two things happen to me. When I am reading (especially out loud) I substitute whole words for the word on the page. Sometimes quite randomly. It causes a lot of confusion when reading place names whilst driving. If I am reading to the kids and I lose my rhythm * I just collapse. I can read no more.
    The other is writing on a whiteboard. At work or in front of a customer this is really embarrassing. I'll be writing away and suddenly my brain goes "nope, don't know what letters come next" and no matter how hard I try it's never going to happen. This used to destroy me.
    Now, since I've come to understand my dyslexia, I can talk about it. Not dismiss it under the dyslexia label. Not as an excuse. But simply as a way my brain works. I'm not stupid.
    Spelling will always be incredibly difficult. * rhythm, honestly. To me, it's just a series on random letters.
    Anyway, I am a happier person. I know what's going on and I can talk about my coping strategies. Best of all, I am in a stronger position to help our daughter. She has an amazing brain. Ideas from randomness. I'm so glad Neural Diversity is becoming a topic of discussion.

  10. Comment by Chris Penner posted on

    Hi there,

    I am glad you enjoyed my blog, and I am sorry to hear that you had a bad experience with HMRC services. I too get people to check my work (I passed the above around several people before it got as far as being published and my wife did some pretty crucial editing of my last job application :)).

    Accessible online services are now much more front and centre than they used to be and the government’s digital agenda is very consistent in promoting the importance of making the digital channel usable by all. Legislation is also catching up – the Government Digital Service recently published a blog on the subject which you can find here:

    What this means for the creators of these services is that for the last 4 years we have been building our web pages to work for all citizens including those of us with dyslexia, and unless we can demonstrate this we are not able to make them live. There is still a lot of legacy stuff out there though, and we are working on making that better too.

  11. Comment by Jonathan Holt posted on

    Chris - Great article. Thanks for being open with who you are, as well as your dyslexia. There's a great book called the Dyslexic Advantage that helped changed my thinking about my dyslexia.

    I know dyslexia is still something that's really misunderstood by others, and I am open with colleagues about my dyslexia. Like any other area if you can recognise the strength in others it can only compliment the teams you're in, and the work you're trying to do.

  12. Comment by Malcolm posted on

    An excellent and brave article Chris - I empathise completely with so many of the aspects you describe!
    I too am in a technical career, often wishing I weren't with the volume of reading I need to do, which is performed roughly 5x slower than colleagues!
    A long time, but never diagnosed dyslexic (being born in 1964), no one, including me, could understand why I was in top class for maths & science, yet at the bottom of the bottom for English & French classes. I am in sales, but to this day cannot present reading from a script - I must memorise it, or it will come out jumbled - without me even realising it!

    I rarely comment on posts etc, but unfortunately, following an experience I had a few years ago with you employer, felt I had to, because my dyslexia literally cost me.
    I misread a question on my TAX return a few years ago, ticking the wrong box, which later incurred me being accused of tax evasion and branded with a £500 fine. - I now get my wife (who incidentally is an awesomely fast reader) to double-check every significant form I complete. So we dyslexics, do need to be careful!

  13. Comment by carlharvey posted on

    This is a fantastic article Chris and a great way to turn something which could be a blocker into an positive - well done 🙂

  14. Comment by Gill Watson posted on

    This is great ! and very introspective . I strongly feel that ' neurodiversity ' is something to be celebrated as every one ,with the right help and support can find their special place in the world . My own son is very dyslexic and at 8yrs became extremely anxious and a school refuser .There was no support for him at his primary school and he was labelled 'lazy' .Since then he has been fortunate enough to be taught in a specialist dyslexia school . They have been amazing in helping him to achieve in so many ways ,not just academic. He is now 16 and growing into a happy , confident ,well rounded young man with a talent for design and technology . I couldn't be more proud of him. Thank you for your article.

  15. Comment by Chris Penner posted on

    Hi there. Thanks for your feedback. There are indeed a lot of us around and I am glad to hear that your daughter is finding her super power. It looks like there is way more support around now than there was when we were kids so fingers crossed that the move to secondary school is relatively painless.

  16. Comment by Gwen posted on

    I loved this article. Thank you. I too have a dyslexic daughter which was diagnosed after I convinced my husband that he too was dyslexic! It was tough at the beginning because I am the exact opposite of a dyslexic - I am organised, have a good memory and I excel at spelling and maths etc. I now love the fact that she is different. Her special quality is art. Her spelling is appaulling in written form and her maths is awful too (probably has dsycalcula) but weirdly she is an excellent reader. There are many types of dyslexia. She is 10 now and is used to being different. The next big hurdle is secondary school. Apprarently 5% of the population have some form of dyslexia.