I was flagged for dyslexia at an early age and was told stories about celebrated people living with dyslexia as a form of comfort. A lot of these individuals worked in Stem, and I believed this was where I would thrive. However, as I started my career in science, dyslexia appeared to be holding me back.

Woman with drum

Source: © M-H Jeeves

Dyslexia brings skills that are hugely beneficial for science, such as the ability to think outside the box

After completing my undergraduate degree in chemistry and spending a year snowboarding in the Alps, I decided I wanted to move into the science sector. With no idea what type of job I wanted, I applied to anything I could find with ‘chemistry’ in the title. After an embarrassing number of rejections, I had a successful interview with a soil testing laboratory. I was told the job was mine as long as I could pass a medical. During the medical, I was asked a series of questions about my physical and mental health. At no point did I think it was relevant to mention I had dyslexia. If I had been asked if I had a specific learning disability, I believe I would have denied it for fear of ‘failing’ the medical and having my job offer withdrawn. I was going to be working with analytical instruments – who cared if I couldn’t spell the names of these instruments?

I soon found that a testing laboratory is a dyslexic person’s nightmare. Every soil batch and test has a letter and number code, and every instrument has a confusing acronym. I struggled not with running the tests but with correctly labelling the soil batches and files. I enjoyed the job and wanted to keep it, so when my monthly review was approaching and I expected my performance to be criticised, I blurted out to a senior member of staff that I had dyslexia. This set a chain of procedures off, which I was unaware of until I got called into my manager’s office. I was met with understanding and compassion, and we left with an easily implemented plan to make the lab a more accessible place for me. Her only issue with the situation was that I had not told anyone sooner. In hindsight, the medical was the perfect opportunity to share my diagnosis and discuss the appropriate accommodations that could be put in place to help me succeed.

It’s an asset to hire someone with dyslexia

There are several reasons why I felt I had to keep my dyslexic diagnosis a secret. Living with dyslexia, the focus is often on your weaknesses: slow reading speed, poor spelling, mispronunciation of words, and an inability to remember instructions. You ask yourself often: ‘Why would someone hire me if I’m inadequate?’ This isn’t helped by the times I have asked for accommodations, only to be met with dismissals from both staff and my peers.

But there are common strengths that come with being dyslexic: excellent problem-solving skills, abstract thinking and the ability to think outside the box. Recently Linkedin added ‘Dyslexic Thinking’ to the skills that users can add to their profile. This is an important step that will help others living with learning disorders feel they can be proud of the way their brain works. It’s an asset to hire someone with dyslexia – they’re able to provide new perspectives on problems and come up with original solutions.

Another reason I didn’t disclose my diagnosis is that I felt I didn’t need help. I didn’t sign up with the disability service during my undergraduate degree for the same reason. I believed the stereotype that dyslexia just meant you were bad at spelling. What help could they offer me when I already have spellcheck?

When I started my PhD last year, I decided to seek out another formal assessment to explore available accommodations. I was both overwhelmed and comforted by the extensive report I received detailing all the things I struggle with as a person living with dyslexia. It felt reassuring to know that there was a reason I couldn’t remember the correct words in a presentation or struggled to concentrate while reading. There is a range of helpful software available to aid with spelling, grammar and reading that I’d encourage anyone struggling to try.

I now understand the support I need and can fight for myself. However, many young scientists don’t – like myself a few years ago. This leads to years of struggling to keep up with their peers and the constant feeling of being inadequate. We need more education and understanding of specific learning disorders and how we can support people living with them. It is a shared responsibility to offer support and understanding to those who need it. I have had positive experiences within academia and in industry, and I want to focus on them to encourage others to act similarly.