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Dyslexia: Point of Pride or Flaw to Hide

By: Dale S. Brown

Should you talk about your dyslexia or keep the information private? The decision to tell other people in your life about your dyslexia, often referred to as "disclosure," is an important one. This article will discuss the negative and positive aspects of disclosure and make suggestions on the best way to discuss your dyslexia should you decide to do so.

People in the field of special education sometimes talk about whether or not someone should "admit" they have dyslexia. The word "admit" has negative connotations, as in these two examples: "She admitted she committed the crime." "My son admitted he ate the cookies." The word "admit" usually is associated with something that is shameful and secret. It is better to use specific language such as;

  • knows that he has dyslexia (thinks about it, accepts it internally)
  • is willing to talk about her dyslexia
  • will make public statements about his dyslexia

There is very little research on disclosure. A literature review found no quantitative information specific to learning disabilities on disclosure.1

Three distinct types of disclosure are important: disclosure in the workplace, disclosure to students and clients, and disclosure to friends.

Disclosure in the Workplace

In order to be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, you must disclose your disability. This is because the law covers only the "known" disability of the applicant or the employee. So, if you need a specific accommodation, such as extended time on a pre-employment test, disclosure will often be the only way to receive it.

However, disclosure opens you up to discrimination. If you are not selected for a job, it is usually impossible to prove that you were rejected because of a disability, because of the large number of people who applied and the variety of reasons that can be given for turning you down. For this reason, it is risky to mention your dyslexia in the application, resume, or job interview.

It is safer to disclose as discrimination after you are offered the job, since it would be more obvious. A good time to request accommodations is after the employer has selected you. This is the period where your leverage will be the highest. You can negotiate your accommodations along with issues such as salaries, benefits, and work hours. It may not be necessary to label your needs as accommodations. Flexible hours, sufficient clerical help, permission to work at home at times, a quiet work station, and a supervisor that matches your work style are frequently requested by people without disabilities. If you negotiate a high enough salary, you may be able to pay for some accommodations yourself. For example, you might pay for a proofreader to help you a few hours a week at home or for a coach to help you structure your work. Consider asking for an offer letter which puts important matters in writing.

You can disclose after you are on the job at any time -- even after working somewhere for a decade! Many people accept work believing their disability will not be a problem. Employers often do not fully explain the tasks while they are recruiting a valuable employee. They sometimes promise resources that later disappear, don't admit to distracting background noise, leave out information on tasks that seem like details to them, and don't mention unwritten rules. For example, you might find that everyone works through lunch, when you used your lunch hour in your last job to do time-consuming checking of your work made necessary by your dyslexia. This is why it is helpful to do thorough research before you take the job.

Disclose with care. If you tell coworkers, the news will probably reach your boss. In many workplaces, confidences are not routinely kept.

Positive Discussion of Dyslexia

Here are some suggestions for successful disclosure:
  1. Consider speaking positively of your disability and mentioning it after you are complimented. You might talk about how the need to read more carefully enabled you to catch a particular detail. Or how dyslexia helps you see the big picture. Mention some famous people with dyslexia such as Thomas Edison.
  2. If you are disclosing to request an accommodation, explain how the accommodation will help you be more productive and help your manager meet his needs. Here are some examples:
    • If you give me X software, you won't have to worry about mistakes in my work.
    • Working at home will let me get more done faster. You'll get the material the next day.
    • If you assign me to X work station, I'll be able to take on the telephone calls because I'll be able to hear more accurately.
  3. Be specific about what the dyslexia means. If you are requesting an accommodation, ask for the one that is easiest for the employer. For example, you might say, "I should not be used to do final proofreading. However, I can catch some mistakes, so feel free to have me look at it."

Disclosure to Students and Clients

Many professionals in the field of learning disabilities teach, coach, counsel, or otherwise help our fellow dyslexics. Many teachers, tutors, psychologists medical doctors, and other helping professionals have dyslexia. Today, dyslexia is discussed more freely. At one time, people rarely talked about their dyslexia in public. Today, celebrities such as Sir Richard Branson, a billionaire and the head of Virgin Industries, frequently mention their dyslexia.

This new pride in ourselves is helpful and we should disclose when it helps move our discussion forward. This does not answer the question of our work with individual clients.

It is critical to be honest with ourselves. We need to express our pain and our pride to peers and be free of the need to "vent" when we are in the professional role. We should disclose only for the purpose of benefiting the person we are helping.

For example, some classroom teachers have found it useful to show their classes how they solve specific problems with their dyslexia. They might assign a strong speller to check their spelling or use multisensory teaching and explain how they learned using all of their senses. This example-setting is helpful. However, telling a child that if you can do it, he or she can do it, would probably not be helpful and might be invalidating.

Disclosure Within Your Social Network

Should you tell your friends about your dyslexia? It depends on the friend and the closeness of your relationship. Secrets corrupt intimacy. They make it difficult for people to explain their experiences with integrity. On the other hand, if you bring up your dyslexia with someone who is ignorant, they may not continue the friendship or treat you with condescension.

A general rule is to talk about your dyslexia when you are clear that the person likes you and wants to be your friend. In dating, wait until you are going out on a regular basis.

Again, be positive about your dyslexia. Talk about how it helped you become more disciplined, see the world in a different way, or be creative. Talk about the famous people with dyslexia. Don't be afraid to joke about it.

After setting a positive context, you might want to ask for the help that you need. For example, you might explain that you need reminder support for when you get together for particular activities. Or, you need them to read the map and take responsibility for navigation.

Don't be surprised if they tell you they have a disability too. They might mention dyslexia, arthritis, mental health history, or any of many invisible disabilities. Listen carefully and treat them with the respect that you wanted when you disclosed.

Consider asking them to keep it confidential. In today's world, it is becoming less difficult and dangerous to be open about dyslexia. Everyone who discloses is an important part of our community's campaign to educate the public about dyslexia. But disclosure does entail a risk. So discuss your dyslexia positively, wisely, and well.

About the Author

Dale S. Brown is Senior Manager, LD OnLine. She is a nationally recognized expert on learning disabilities who has written four books on learning disabilities. She received the Ten Outstanding Young Americans Award for her work as an advocate for people with learning disabilities. This article was adapted from an article that first appeared in the Fall, 2004 "Perspectives" a publication of the International Dyslexia Association.

References

References

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Gerber P. J., Price L.A., Mulligan, R. & Shessel, I (2004). Beyond Transition: A Comparison of the Employment Experiences of American and Canadian Adults with LD. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 37 (4). 283-291.

Lucht, John (1997) Rites of Passage at 100,000+ Viceroy Press, NY 385-389.

Endnotes

Endnotes

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1. (Personal conversation, Paul Gerber, Lynda Price, Sept. 5, 2004)

Brown, D (Fall, 2004) Dyslexia: Point of Pride or Flaw to Hide, Perspectives Adapted slightly for LD OnLine