Study: Dyslexic Employees Might Be Skilled Innovators

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Nov 16, 2007

Thirty-five percent of U.S. entrepreneurs have dyslexia, compared with 20 percent in the United Kingdom, according to a study released in November 2007 by Julie Logan, professor of entrepreneurship at London’s Cass Business School. Moreover, entrepreneurs in the United Kingdom are five times more likely to have dyslexia than other U.K. citizens, of which 4 percent are dyslexics.

Kinko’s founder Paul Orfalea, Jupitermedia CEO Alan Meckler, and investor Charles Schwab are famous examples of dyslexic entrepreneurs, according to the study’s announcement.

Logan’s research found that dyslexics are more likely than non-dyslexics to:

  • Own more than one business.
  • Run their businesses for a shorter time (although they grow them more quickly).
  • Start their businesses right after school.
  • Excel in oral communications, problem-solving, delegation and spatial awareness.
  • Be influenced by a mentor (vs. non-dyslexics, who are more influenced by educational experiences).
  • Manage more staff (25 on average, vs. 17 for non-dyslexics) because of their increased ability to delegate, an example of a coping strategy employed to overcome difficulties.

According to the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), dyslexia is a language-based learning disability that causes difficulties with specific language skills, particularly reading. Students with dyslexia usually experience difficulties with other language skills such as spelling, writing and pronouncing words. It is referred to as a learning disability because dyslexia can make it very difficult for a student to succeed academically in the typical instructional environment.

Actors Whoopi Goldberg, Rob Lowe, Danny Glover and Cher reportedly have dyslexia, according to IDA.

Dyslexia occurs in people of all backgrounds and intellectual levels, according to an IDA fact sheet, which says that people with dyslexia might be gifted in areas that do not require strong language skills, such as art, computer science, design, drama, electronics, math, mechanics, music, physics, sales and sports.

Accounting for U.S. Differences

Logan, who delivered her findings at a Cass Business School conference, says the primary reason why the U.S. has a greater number of dyslexic entrepreneurs is because they have better systems for identification, intervention and support of those with dyslexia at a young age, giving them a much better chance of success.

The study found marked differences in how dyslexic entrepreneurs in each country felt about their schooling. Those in the United States reportedly enjoyed their experience, while their U.K. counterparts had a generally negative experience.

Logan said a major contributing reason for alienation among dyslexics is that the general teaching styles adopted in Britain--lectures and case studies—cause problems for dyslexics and don’t encourage soft skill development. “Dyslexics need to be placed in a more holistic and practical teaching setting which will foster their skills and enhance their potential,” she said in a press release. “This approach would produce a more flourishing entrepreneurial society.”

Logan says another major problem is that there is no standard system for identifying dyslexia in pupils in the U.K. and a lack of awareness of the condition by teachers. “A lot of teachers still claim that dyslexia is a label invented by middle-class parents to try and explain away their child’s underachievement at school. As long as this attitude prevails, we can’t expect to make any headway,” she stated.

Many entrepreneurs cite good communication as a key factor in their success. “Entrepreneurs are masters at communicating with their team, their customers and the media. They have a clear, uncomplicated style of communication that wins hearts and minds.”

Wide Range of Accommodation Options

Employers can best tap into the unique skills of workers with dyslexia by learning more about the condition and exploring a variety of accommodation options as individuals identify their needs.

For example, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), which provides free accommodation guidance to employers, says employees with dyslexia might have difficulty reading text. Accommodations employers can provide include converting text to audio and providing larger print or double-spacing text. Screen-reading software and modifications to computer fonts and colors can help employees with dyslexia read computer text. Employers can learn about options for accommodating employees with learning disabilities online or by calling JAN at (800) 526-7234 or (304) 293-7186.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is a writer/manager for SHRM Online’s Diversity Focus Area.

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