My disability and me

A few weeks ago I had a colleague contact me to ask if I would mind speaking to their mentee. It turns out their mentee has a learning disability and was really struggling to find a promotion or development opportunity and thought their disability was holding them back.

My colleague and I had been on a talent programme together where I had spoken openly about my learning disability (I am dyspraxic, with dyslexic tendencies) and they wondered if I had any words of advice or support I could give. So the mentee and I had a really good chat, and I hope I helped, but the conversation has stuck with me since then.

Invisible disabilities are tricky

I have, when I was starting out all those years ago, been told by a boss to "Never tell anyone else about your disability otherwise they’ll think you can’t do your job and wonder why I hired you" but that was a long time ago, and the world has for the most part moved on. Since then I’ve always had a lot of support from my bosses. Don’t get me wrong - there have been a few jobs along the way where my disability and I were not a good fit for the role. My short stint writing strategy was short for a reason. I learned quickly where I fit, and where I didn’t. But I think the best thing I ever did was sit down and think about what I bring to the table.

Invisible disabilities are tricky, just like invisible illnesses, and people generally don't know you have them unless you tell them. Also, as individuals we don't like to make a big deal of it, we don't want to be judged or treated differently. But, for me at least, recognising what was different about me was a huge turning point.

Developing coping strategies

My disability and I, we see things differently, we approach tasks from a different angle, we spot things others might miss. This can be really helpful. But the other thing I have had to do is recognise my own weaknesses - I'm clumsy, have a terrible memory, and I loose things as soon as I put them down. These things aren't career limiting unless you let them be. Over the years I've come up with coping strategies, and I've found roles where my strengths were appreciated. There are lots of reasons I love Agile, but writing things on Post-it notes and putting them on the wall where they can't be lost or forgotten is a huge plus!

But in all seriousness, identifying my coping strategies, what things help me and what things don’t, was a big step for me. In one of my first roles I was required to write long Freedom of Information Appeal reports. Even though I knew writing wasn’t my strong suit I used to plough on and struggle through drafts, getting frustrated when my manager at the time kept returning a report to me telling me “it needed work”. Eventually I confided in a colleague how hard I was finding it, and they offered to proofread my drafts for me, if I’d help them with their analysis. Over the years my writing has gotten a lot better, but I’m still not completely comfortable writing large documents, and I avoided blogging for years as I worried about it so much. But I now have a lovely colleague who sanity checks my blogs for me, which has really helped me get over my fear of blogging.

I used to struggle giving presentations because of my memory problems, and because I was so worried about it, I avoided speaking in front of groups of people for years. I eventually spoke to one of my managers about it, and went on a couple of courses to improve my presentation skills. I also spoke to one of my Directors who I considered good at speaking to ask for tips, and was astounded to learn they also have dyslexia, and hated speaking in front of people as they didn't believe they were good at it. Over the last couple of years I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to try and do things I don’t believe I’m good at, and I’ve built a network of colleagues whose opinion I trust. I also know they will give me their opinion or help without judging me, and this has meant I’m more confident in doing things I used to avoid, which means I've got better at doing them, which has in turn helped me develop in my career.

Find a role where you can add value

However, to progress in my career I have had to recognise that there are some jobs where I will never be a good fit. But that's the same for everyone, disabled or not, we all have individual strengths. Whenever my mentees (disabled or not) look for promotion I always advise applying for the roles where they can add value, rather than applying for any old role just because of the grade.

DWP, thankfully, recognises the value of being inclusive and having a diverse workforce, and I am continuously thankfully that I have found my place in DWP, doing a job I enjoy where I add real value. For those who haven't found their place yet, who still struggle with their disability, know you aren't alone, know your strengths and your value, be proud of what you've accomplished. The department (and the world) is full of different roles and there's a role somewhere where you can shine.

More information

Dyspraxia is a common disorder affecting motor coordination in children and adults. An individual’s coordination difficulties may affect participation and functioning of everyday life skills in education, work and employment.

Dyslexia is a combination of abilities and difficulties that affect the learning process in one or more of reading, spelling and writing. It is a persistent condition.

Access the Dyspraxia Foundation’s

Access the British Dyslexia Association