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My Dyslexia Story - Zac O'Brien

Monday 3 April 2023

I consider myself lucky that I was diagnosed while I was at primary school. My Mum was a teacher and recognised signs of dyslexia. She then pushed for me to be tested and ensured that support was in place for me throughout my education. Getting diagnosed at a young age has meant that I have always had the support I needed, both in education and during my career as a solicitor.

Finding strategies that work for me

Spelling and grammar have never come easily to me. However, there is a lot more technology available now and that has helped me to improve both considerably. Sometimes I use specialist software, but recently I have noticed that more and more applications are including built-in accessibility features as standard. These features have been a big help. For instance, I often use the software to read back the text that I have drafted. I also change the colours of text, as I find that black text on a white background is not always the easiest to read.

Verbal communication is my strength

When I was growing up, I never liked written communication. Instead, I focused on verbal communication. This has become a strength of mine and I use it all the time at work, including speaking at meetings, getting to know people at networking events or giving advice to clients over the phone. This skill has meant that I have developed really good relationships with colleagues, clients and other external contacts.

"In my experience working collaboratively with people who look at issues from different perspectives can be really powerful."

It's worth noting that sometimes dyslexic people will look at a problem in a different way to neurotypical people and I have found that my dyslexia can help me analyse information from a different vantage point. In my experience working collaboratively with people who look at issues from different perspectives can be really powerful. A team formed of a diverse group of individuals can come up with some interesting and creative solutions.

Seek specialist advice

At school and university, I was given extra time and the use of a computer in exams. Some people were critical of me receiving this support and thought it gave me an advantage - I therefore didn’t discuss it much. But now, my view has changed, and I think it is important to discuss this type of support. Someone who is not dyslexic does not know what it is like for someone with dyslexia to take an exam. Equally, I don’t know what it is like for someone without dyslexia to take an exam. Fortunately, there are specialists who do understand both perspectives and they have set the standard for making examinations a more level playing field. It’s therefore important that we trust that if people are given extra time or other adjustments, that they truly do need those measures in place, and they should be encouraged to take up this support.

Be open and get support

When I was about to start my career, I was nervous about disclosing my dyslexia. However, I am pleased to have found everyone to be very supportive, both in terms of my colleagues and clients. My work has helped me with strategies, and these have needed to change as I have become more senior in my career. I have also found the IT team have been great and have been looking for new technology that can assist me.

I have also been really impressed with people from outside of my firm who have made adjustments for me. For example, there have been times when I have received documents from external companies that have been produced in a style that I find difficult to read. However, when I have directed them to the page on the British Dyslexia Association's website about dyslexia friendly fonts and styles, they have often been very willing to change how they present their documents. I think it is important to have open conversations about this issue as, by discussing these topics, we are making discussions about dyslexia more commonplace in the workplace. This is important not only to increase awareness around dyslexia, but also to empower people with other learning difficulties or disabilities to discuss adjustments they would find helpful too.

The way forward

I am proud of what I have achieved at work and in education. For instance, since the start of my legal career I have been involved in three cases at the Supreme Court. I could not have reached this point in my career without the support I have received. However, what I am particularly pleased with how people are willing to listen to some of the challenges that I have faced and want to make the workplace more inclusive for people who are neurodivergent. I am therefore really pleased that my firm has set up a Disability Committee, which I am part of. Together, we are working on ways to promote change and increase understanding of this area.

My advice would you have for someone who has recently been diagnosed with dyslexia:

Being diagnosed with dyslexia does not change who you are. If you were recently diagnosed, you have always been dyslexic. But being diagnosed means that you may be able to get support. I have no doubt that various new strategies will be offered to you, and I would encourage everyone to try them. Not all of them will work, but once you find the ones that do then things may become easier and then you can really improve your performance.

I would like the world to know...

There is lots of literature about the types of jobs that suit people with dyslexia. Growing up, I didn’t have any role models that were lawyers with dyslexia. I was worried that because there was lots of reading and writing involved that I would struggle to have a legal career. Yet practising law is also about analysing information, working with others and creating strategies. People with dyslexia can really excel at these skills. I hope that people with dyslexia who work in different industries start talking about their experiences, as this will hopefully encourage more people with dyslexia to follow their dreams and give them the confidence that they can pursue a wide variety of careers.