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Dyslexia in the workplace: Camilla’s story

Posted: 20/03/2023

Like many dyslexics in my generation, I wasn’t diagnosed until I was well into adulthood. I learned to problem solve, to think laterally. I developed strategies to cope.

School was like living in an alien universe. My contemporaries understood how things worked; I watched from the side-lines. Learning was continual puzzlement. By around nine or ten years old, I had learned to read and write but my handwriting remained illegible; my spelling was disastrous; and my reading speed was noticeably slow. In senior school I relied on kind friends who lent me their (impossibly immaculate) notes and ensured that I wrote room numbers and lesson start times down correctly.

My saviour at school was music. I was taught to play the piano at seven years old. I had no problems reading music. There was a time, in middle school, where I could happily read a music score with more ease than I could read a book. I had a good singing voice, and I threw myself into anything singing-related. It was here that I could achieve. Music made a huge difference to my school experience.

Life improved no end when I left school. It is safe to say that I would not have done half the interesting things I have done in my career if I had followed a conventional path. At 18 years old, I learned to type (which solved the hand-writing problem), and I learned shorthand (which solved at least some of the spelling issues and gave me an overview of the structure of the written language). Since no one thought for a minute that I would be capable of going to university, I spent my first four working years as a PA for EMI Music, immersed in the classical music world. In my lunch hour, I could take the bus up the road and eat in the Abbey Road Studios canteen.

By the time I reached my early twenties, my use of the written word had improved so much that, encouraged by EMI, I went to university, reading law. To everyone’s surprise, I went on to qualify into a City law firm in corporate tax. I still had to develop strategies to cope – if I had to write a long piece of advice, I would quietly slip into the secretarial bay (fee earners did not have their own computers at this point) and use the word processors.

I was eventually diagnosed in my late thirties while doing my second law degree. The diagnosis was a revelation – so many things fell into place. The educational psychologist encouraged me to realise that, without a diagnosis, I had overcome so many obstacles on my own and I would continue to do so. He inspired me.

When I came to Penningtons Manches Cooper, I was very wary of disclosing my dyslexia and waited a long time before I said anything. It was lockdown that forced the issue. We were all working from home and the move towards a paperless working environment suddenly accelerated. My particular form of dyslexia does not do well working only from screens. When it comes to analysing complex documents, I do much better working with hard copy.

To my surprise, my supervisor’s reaction was entirely supportive. Frankly, I wish I had spoken up years earlier. Modern technology plays an important part in enabling me to work easily as a lawyer. Spell-checkers and grammar checkers are incredibly useful. A relatively new innovation in our computer systems is the programme that reads back script. This amazing tool banished my fear of typos literally overnight.

It is now recognised that encouraging neurodiversity in the workplace is one way that an organisation can achieve a cutting edge over its competitors. I would encourage anyone with a neurodiverse condition to come forward. Those of us who are neurodiverse no longer have to think of ourselves as just surviving under the radar, hoping no one notices. We can hold our heads up high and say that we have a valuable contribution to make.

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