Dyslexia and my career: Jaye's story

Helen Essex & Joe Morris sit down with Jaye O'Farrell-Stevens to dig deeper into his experiences navigating a career with severe dyslexia.

Written by Helen Essex
Published 14 June 2021
Dyslexia and my career: Jaye's story

“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” 

I’ve seen this quote, from author Brad Meltzer, floating around on social media from time to time. It’s one that has struck a particular chord with me since the start of the pandemic: a global event that has impacted every single person in a different way, and the need not to make assumptions about how easy – or difficult – any one individual was finding the experience. 

So what about the other struggles faced by those around us – particularly in the workplace? There are always things going on for the colleagues we work with day in, day out that we might not even be aware of. What if these could be addressed with one or two conscious changes in our organisations? 

Opening the conversation on neurodiversity  

Our recent webinar, Understanding Neurodiversity and its role in the Workplace, was the most-subscribed in Mind Tools for Business’ history. People flocked – albeit virtually – to hear from neurodiversity expert Furkan Karayel who spoke passionately about the contribution neurodiverse people make to an organisation – when they are given the opportunity. And the chat was alive with comments from participants all over the world. This topic is clearly important to them – be it because of the struggles they’ve faced themselves as a result of their own neurodiversity, or because they were looking for new ways to contribute to a more inclusive workplace. 

We were lucky enough to be able to invite our colleague Jaye O’Farrell-Stevens, Customer Retention Executive, who was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 9, to join the panel with Furkan to share some of his experiences. After the session Joe Morris, Marketing Executive for US, and I took the opportunity to sit down with Jaye and learn more about his story. 

When you understand a problem, you can solve it  

The fact that so many people attended the Mind Tools for Business webinar this week demonstrates without question that people are looking to learn more about neurodiversity – and, as Jaye points out, this can only be a good thing. “Ten years ago, mental health wasn't talked about. However, after lots of campaigning and education, people better understand mental health, and we're seeing companies changing their culture to better support their employees. The same is starting to happen with neurodiversity, with more information and training for managers becoming available, supported by campaigns like this one. When you combine improved awareness with neurodiverse employees feeling empowered to come forward, you'll get organisations making positive changes, and the result is a more inclusive workforce”.

A neurodiverse workforce is the best type of workforce  

This was a point Furkan made rigorously in the webinar, sharing statistics from the Harvard Business Review, JPMorgan and McKinsey on the benefits of hiring neurodivergent individuals. What’s more, creating a supportive environment for these people makes business sense: an article from the Mind Tools for Business toolkit, says that in doing so employers “help to reduce the stress and stigma that neurodivergent people may experience. Not only can this improve mental health, but it can also drive employee engagement”.  [1] 

We wanted to dig deeper into Jaye’s thoughts on this. “When you hire for a new role,” he told us, “you want to attract the most diverse pool of candidates possible, in order have the broadest range of experiences and skills to pick from. Neurodiverse individuals often possess rare and sought-after skills - be that a unique way of looking at problems, a tenacity to solve issues or be experts in a subject they love. These are all attributes, as a manager, you want in your team. The broader the skill set, the greater the performance of a team.”  

Makes sense, Joe and I thought. After all, we know that a typical trait of autism is the ability to focus on and convey passion about a particular subject, or that a dyslexic individual is often a more creative thinker – right? Sure, says Jaye – but he highlights the danger of putting neurodiverse characteristics into a box: “…the stereotype of hidden exceptionalism can be very harmful. Furkan said in her presentation up to 20% of the UK population is neurodiverse. Not every one of them is a Turing, Stewart, or Branson. Most are regular folks for whom life is just a little bit harder.” 

Work vs. school: why it’s different  

A turning point for Jaye, he told us, was the shock he experienced during his move into the workplace from the UK education system. “When you’re in education, you’re constantly being tested and told what has changed, what your reading age is – all the “marker” points that track your progress. The people facilitating your education are usually informed about your ability and any requirements you have. When you enter the workforce, that all changes. You rely on yourself to know what you need to work on and what might be suffering.” People at the start of their careers, Jaye points out, may also lack the confidence to speak up when they need help: “At that time I was nervous and keen to make a good impression. I didn’t want to say anything that would require people to think differently of me or worry that they need to make allowances”. 

Your interview, your questions  

The change in conversation for employers, Jaye suggests, needs to be the point at which people join an organisation, especially if they’re earlier on in their careers. Candidates for roles, in the knowledge of the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce, should be empowered to be able to ask how neurodiverse the existing workforce is. “At Mind Tools I’ve been given access to Grammarly, the writing support app. I would encourage neurodiverse individuals to use the interview process as the opportunity to assess what support is available to enable them to do the job effectively – rather than allowing the employer to assume that any neurodiverse need would render them unable to do exactly that.”  

Removing barriers is key   

“A neurodiverse individual is likely just as competent as the next candidate for a role; it's the barrier to entry that is the problem.” 

Perhaps the most shocking statistic shared by Furkan on the webinar was that an estimated 80% of neurodiverse individuals are currently unemployed [2]. So how do we ensure that these hurdles come away to allow that figure to improve? 

Jaye’s recommendations: “I would ask organisations to scrutinise their hiring processes and requirements and ask themselves if the entry requirement really needs to be so high. Opportunities are being missed because a neurodiverse individual may not have certain qualifications, for example. [Employers] may discover they're excluded vast numbers of potentially brilliant and productive employees because of arbitrary metrics”. Examples like the one above, he says, feed into unconscious bias – where beliefs and views about people are based on assumptions – and that in turn means that employers are setting themselves up for disadvantage. 

And finally…    

“The best piece of advice I have ever received is a simple one,” Jaye says. “It’s that dyslexia does not make me inferior, it makes me different, and in us all being unique, we excel. The Robert Frost poem "The Road Not Taken" is often misquoted and misunderstood; however, I will use the misunderstood meaning for my benefit today: 

I took the one less travelled by, 

 And that has made all the difference.  

If we all take the same path, we will all arrive at the same conclusion. If we all do something different, we all have different life experiences and differing opinions, and this difference is what makes us great.” 

Mind Tools for Business contains resources for learners of all levels on neurodiversity and the wider topic of ED&I. To explore the content, book a demo with one of our experts who can show you how our toolkit can align with the learning strategy of your organisation. 

To relive the insightful session watch the recording here.


[1] 'Neurodiversity at work' - Mind Tools for Business Toolkit. Click here to find out more
[2] https://hbr.org/2017/05/neurodiversity-as-a-competitive-advantage

About the author

Helen Essex

Helen Essex

Campaign Marketing Manager
Helen has worked in B2B marketing for over eight years, and is continually looking for ways in which to bring Mind Tools for Business' story to audiences around the world. She enjoys working closely with clients and teams right across our business to understand how L&D is shifting and developing and incorporating this information into creative, dynamic campaigns.

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