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Mike Styles 05:00, Jan 19 2020

OPINION: We have a long legacy of denial of dyslexia here in New Zealand, and it is hurting us, economically, socially and in poor educational outcomes. International authority Professor Maryanne Wolf once said, "It is an individual waste and an economic waste for Australia not to recognise dyslexia." The same applies here to this side of the Tasman.

Our human rights legislation protects almost every diverse group in our society from discrimination and unfair treatment. Sadly, one group misses out on protection, namely neuro-diverse people. By omission we inadvertently condemn people with dyslexia and other neuro-diverse conditions to a second-class existence. Most neuro-diverse children are short-changed by the education system, and many neuro-diverse adults are side-lined in the workplace.

People with dyslexia are different, not disabled, yet they are over-represented in school dropouts, unemployment statistics, suicide figures, other mental health casualties and most expensively in the nation's prison population. International authorities agree, at least 10 per cent of the population have dyslexia and/or related forms of neurodiversity.

In New Zealand at least 50 per cent of the prison populations is dyslexic. This horror statistic is easily explained. Clever people who struggle with text do not succeed in the school system, end up being separated from the mainstream and on the wrong side of the law.

Statistics New Zealand does not collect useful data on types of neurodiversity – or on neurodiversity as a category. As a result, New Zealand does not know its occurrence of dyslexia/neurodiversity, and does not know the economic impact of unaddressed learning differences. It is a classic case of "we don't know what we don't know, therefore there is no momentum to change it".

Dyslexia first becomes obvious to the astute observer when children get to be around seven or eight and fall behind in learning to read, write and spell. Difficulties with literacy skills often remain if the dyslexia is not picked up. Children with dyslexia grow up to be adults with dyslexia, and neurodiversity in all its forms becomes a major handbrake on productivity in the workplace.

People with dyslexia have learned the hard way to remain in the shadows, for fear of their embarrassing inability to spell being exposed. Society rightly prevents us from discriminating against people on the grounds of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or religion, yet we are allowed to ridicule a person for their challenges with text. We can be proud about the progress we have made to address prejudice against most diverse groups, but sadly one omission remains: the 10 per cent of the population who are neurodiverse.

We can estimate the impact on workplace productivity. In New Zealand an embarrassing 40 per cent of the workforce have insufficient literacy skills to do their jobs properly. This leads to health and safely errors, wastage and rework costs, along with the inability of many workers to adapt to new technology. A significant proportion of low adult literacy levels is down to dyslexia and other forms of neurodiversity.

An adult with dyslexia represents the ultimate paradox. The very same person who struggles to spell is often the creative, 3-D thinker who can come up with innovative solutions to tricky workplace problems. Richard Branson, Richard Taylor and Bill Gates are all dyslexic and are successful for a reason. They have the combination of creativity, empathy and entrepreneurialism that is linked to many adults with dyslexia.

NZ Inc. has been angst ridden for some time about our low productivity. It is high time the Productivity Commission considered a possible contributing factor that is right under our noses. To ignore adults in the workplace with dyslexia is to attempt to race a Formula One car with the brakes on. On the other hand, we could turbo burst the economy by unleashing the creative power of the dyslexic mind.

Two government agencies are leading the way in changing the nation's mindset to dyslexia. The Department of Corrections, not often known for being innovative, is embarking on a programme to up-skill its staff and educators to recognise dyslexia and to provide support for those who are dyslexic. The Tertiary Education Commission has commissioned the establishment of a Dyslexia Friendly Quality Mark for tertiary education providers who follow best practice in support for learners who have dyslexia.

The ultimate irony is that the costs involved in supporting children and adults with dyslexia to be more productive and included is minimal. All that is needed is some political leadership.

* Mike Styles is a specialist in literacy and numeracy for the Primary Industry Training Organisation, New Zealand, and a member of the British Dyslexia Association. 

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