Dyslexia Awareness Month - No, This Phone Call Couldn't Be An Email


For many countries, October is National Dyslexia Awareness Month.  Dyslexia is one of the most common language-based learning disabilities.  Here in the United States, the National Institute of Health estimates dyslexia is as high as 1 in 5 individuals.  In a team or department within your organization, 4 out of every 20 colleagues could be dyslexic.  Surprise! It’s also possible that those four people aren’t aware, which is very common since Dyslexia and Dysgraphia display no physical characteristics and are often masked by high IQs and other strengths. 

In the spirit of National Dyslexia Awareness Month, I wanted to share some of my experiences in education, my evolving perception and identity, life in a digital workplace, and the tools I use daily.

Dyslexia as an Individual

I often hear from people who have recently had a child diagnosed and are emotional at the thought of having a “disabled” child who will have to navigate the education system and eventual workforce.  The first thing I always say is that there has never been a better time to be Dyslexic.  The educational resources, governmental protections, and technology at one’s disposal are overwhelmingly beneficial and continue to improve compared to when I was diagnosed years ago. I had to fight for accommodations when school curriculums were pen-and-paper based, but today’s technology-based schools are better equipped to help students with dyslexia succeed. Since graduating from high school, I have earned 3 college degrees, co-authored one book, and written countless articles published internationally.  Technology is a great equalizer and enabler.

Some time ago, I came across a book called The Dyslexic Advantage.  It covers the concept of neurodiversity and the incredible strengths a neurodiverse brain can have. Neurodiverse brains can struggle with a task such as reading, but conversely, they can be incredibly gifted in areas such as pattern detection, problem-solving, abstract thinking, spatial reasoning, and empathy.

When he was young, my son looked at us and said, “From here, I can get to anywhere in the world.  Our driveway connects to streets and highways, and we can drive anywhere or to the airport to fly.”  That isn’t a thought you’d typically associate with being disabled or neurodiverse, but it is an example of big-picture abstract thinking with a strong imagination. 

Dyslexia as an Employee

This leads me to life in the workplace. The abstract skills I just named are all skills that every workforce needs much more often than, let us say, having an email with zero spelling mistakes. I may be horrible at writing on dry-erase boards, taking notes, or financial numbers, but let me jump into a complex project to manage, an emerging technology to analyze, a sales strategy to work through with a team, or large marketing events to run.  Not only am I good at them, but I enjoy this type of work.  I never thought I would see the day when LinkedIn added Dyslexic Thinking as a skillset. (Thank you, Sir Richard Branson! I hope to one day shake your hand.)

I never spoke about my differences in the office.  I have what a gambler would call tells: things that, if you know what you are looking for, can give insight into my neurodiversity.  A couple of highlights that others have noticed include my bad handwriting, the fact that I will always avoid reading out loud or during a presentation, and spoken/written word substitution. I’d like to apologize to my coworker, Kurt, who I called Keith for about two months.

I started sharing the fact that I’m dyslexic with my immediate colleagues and bosses only in the last ten years; last year was a milestone for me.  It was when I decided for the first time in my 20+ year career to turn in paperwork for my “disability” to be documented.  I didn’t do it because I wanted to be treated differently, but I wanted to share with others.  I carried a high amount of stress every day trying to be “perfect”.  The more I grew in my career, the greater my communication responsibilities have become, and I felt it was time to be an advocate.  Extreme had recently started up a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practice led by a friend of mine, and I thought it was time to offer some perspective.

A common office joke is “This meeting could have been an email.”  Well, sometimes that is about as helpful as telling someone visually impaired to “look harder.”  There are a lot of little things you can do to make the workplace more inclusive, like not calling people out for not taking notes in a meeting or giving people space for a phone call instead of taking up time going back and forth over email. People function differently, and it’s important to realize how our unconscious biases might impact a coworker who can’t turn out a flawless email without really thinking about it.

So, how do I manage in an industry that relies on and assumes so much information is processed and communicated via the written word? In short, technology and people skills. Below I’ve listed some of my preferred tools.

There has never been a better time to be dyslexic.  In support of dyslexia awareness month, please take a moment to learn more about neurodiversity and the benefits we bring to the workplace. To learn more about ERGs at Extreme, visit our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Page.

Bob’s Recommended Tools for Neurodiverse Employees:

  • Grammarly.com – The best spelling, grammar, and tone system out there with clients for PCs, Mac, iPhones, browsers, keyboards, and Office.  No text goes out that it hasn’t tried to help me with. Personally, I think everyone should use this program, and it qualifies as an ADA-compliant accommodation.  It has done more to help me improve my written language skills than anything else on the market.
  • iPhone – Transcription and dictation just keep getting better.
  • Amazon Alexa – For some reason, I still can’t spell restaurant.  Even spellchecks can’t figure out what I am trying to say.  Bring in Alexa; a quick ask, and I have the damn word spelled back to me.
  • Evernote – I take pictures of my scratch notes, enter keywords, and I am able to find important information I meant to record.
  • Otter.AI – My preferred transcription tool when I need to take notes but can’t process them.
  • Audio Books – Audible and other resources on my Mac and iPhone when I want something to read to me.
  • ChatGPT – Still very early days, but it can help get some of my ideas in an order that I can then add to or modify.  I am sure this has huge promise long term as the technology matures.
  • Social Media – Often gets a bad rap, but it has been fantastic at connecting communities together sharing knowledge and resources. Shout out to Kate Griggs from Made by Dyslexia for her advocacy. Check out MadeByDyslexia.com
  • Coworkers – The most important resource I leverage is some amazingly close colleagues.  I am grateful and often humbled by the kindness of many coworkers who have been willing to give me some extra support or tolerate my “quirks”.  This article has been processed by Apple’s Mac OS, Microsoft Office Word, Grammarly, and, most importantly, one very supportive colleague.
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About the Author
Bob Zemke
Director, Channel Marketing

Bob Zemke, CISSP, CPHIMS, is a Director of Channel Marketing at Extreme Networks responsible for content and enablement.

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