Workplace accommodations

Applying for a job

In an ideal world you would be able to tell a prospective employer that you are dyslexic and explain the accommodations that you are interested in.  While it is technically illegal for your employer to choose to not hire you because of a disability issue, it's not a good idea to take this risk unless you're highly confident that they'll be receptive.  

A good way to ferret out this information is to place an item on your resume that mentions dyslexia but does not indicate that you are dyslexic, per se. For example you might mention that you volunteer with a dyslexia organization, such as Headstrong Nation or Eye to Eye, providing you do volunteer of course. You could simply indicate "interested in volunteering at dyslexia-related education nonprofits." Dyslexia can then become a topic of conversation and you can get a sense of how the employer reacts to the idea.  It might be that your employer tells you that they are enthusiastic about supporting people with disabilities or even that the hiring manager him or herself is dyslexic!  

To tell or not to tell

The most interesting and complicated question regarding dyslexia in the workplace is whether to inform your employer that you are dyslexic.  Every individual needs to answer this question for themselves based on their economic circumstances and their relationship with their employer.  In the short term, it may make more sense to keep this information private if you feel as though your employer may not be receptive or if your financial situation limits your flexibility should you decide to change jobs.
Keep in mind that it is your right to have an accommodation, but you may not want to take that risk yet.  Find out more about the legal frameworks involved in the legal sections on the facts page.

On the job

Once you have been offered a job, your employer is obligated to provide appropriate accommodations in the workplace, assuming they have the economic means. The law has a specific standard on this obligation, but a good rule of thumb is that if your employer has more than 15 employees, you are covered. Under recent precedents, religious organizations have more flexibility in terms of their obligations to avoid discrimination and you should consult an attorney if this is a factor in your situation. Again you'll want to consider your own economic situation. Many people have found that introducing the topic and explaining a full range of the accommodations needed is a good idea before you accept the job. Keep in mind that before you have accepted the job, you are in the best negotiating position you will have for some time.

What the law says

A good rule of thumb is that you want to be aware of what the law provides in protection, but you do not want to threaten, let alone take legal action until you have exhausted every other possible opportunity to work with your employer to find the right accommodation for your needs.

The law functions best when it acts as a bodyguard; people tend to pay attention when you walk into a room accompanied by a big guy in dark sunglasses! You don’t want your bodyguard to do much beyond look menacing: if he acts, it may encourage others to get their own bodyguards, aka lawyers and bureaucrats. Merely noting in a passing comment that you have a bodyguard, e.g., saying "My understanding is that the ADA supports people with dyslexia getting these accommodations," is more effective than boasting what he could do if you wanted him to. 

ADA & Section 504

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the process of "learning" (and, with recent amendments, "reading" specifically) is part of the definition of “major life activities” that can be affected by a disability. Dunking a basketball would not be considered a major life activity, so the inability to dunk is not a disability. But if you have difficulty doing something that everyone expects mainstream people to be able to do, you have a disability for legal purposes and a right to an accommodation in the workplace in most circumstances.  

Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the ADA are both civil rights laws which apply in the workplace. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the law that funds special education in schools, does not apply.   Section 504 protects people with disabilities from discrimination in private or public programs that receive federal funds. If your employer is part of the federal government or receives any federal funds, for example is a nonprofit that relies on federal funding, then this law applies.   The ADA applies more generally to employment, public services, and accommodations such as buildings and facilities.   If you get to a point where you need to understand the law beyond this level of detail, it is likely time to get a lawyer.

Choosing a lawyer

You should try all of the polite (and even the pushy) options before retaining a lawyer, but you must judge for yourself how comfortable you feel in the process. If you are not owed back wages and you have another option to find an employer that would be more open minded, this is highly preferred to the expensive, stressful and high risk process that is using the law to achieve your goals.

If you’re making no progress after six months of badgering your employer, and you do not have another option for employment that meets your needs, it is likely time to consider bringing an attorney on board, factoring in your own finances and ability to cover the costs. If you have the economic means, get counsel earlier, but keep the lawyer in the background until you have tried every means of communication with your employer.

Choosing a lawyer is much like choosing a doctor or a mechanic. You need to be able to trust this person to make judgment calls on issues that you don’t fully understand. Remember that if you do get into a formal legal dispute, in many cases the settlement will include an award to the prevailing party to cover attorney’s fees, but these cases can take months or years to resolve, and you may have out-of-pocket costs in the interim (or permanently if you do not win your case). 

A good approach to finding an attorney is to contact an employment law firm in your area and determine if they take disability discrimination cases. Be sure to ask if they have ever taken cases related to dyslexia or at least a non-obvious disability. Firms generally by employee and employer side.  You want an employee side firm with a good reputation.  

You will want to make sure your attorney generally shares your philosophy when it comes to securing accommodations.  Be certain that you and your attorney are also on the same page about timing. Ultimately your lawyer works for you, and he or she needs to serve you and your best interests. Just as surgeons like to cut, many lawyers like to litigate, and in some cases they might suggest they can do extra work that is unnecessary, secretly hoping to increase their billable hours (this unsavory practice is called “churning fees”). 

Make sure that you have a clear expectation about the amount of money you are willing to commit and what your short-term goals are. Your attorney may be able to secure you a fabulous win, but it could cost you $300,000 and three years. Alternatively, he or she may be able to get you 75 percent of what you want in three months for $10,000 in fees, or even 65 percent of what you want for $1,000 worth of letters and phone calls. You’ll need to figure out which of these paths is best for you, keeping in mind that the best win is a fast win, given the stress to you.

Hardware essentials

A critical part of your approach will be for you to have a list of items you want to ask for.  The first thing you'll need is a hardware platform. If you have access to a laptop or a desktop computer, or an iPad or another tablet or netbook at work, this is a good starting point. If your employer doesn't provide you with one of these already, the $400 they would need to pay is likely an obligation under the law, as being able to write and read are integral parts of your job. 

If you need to a read aloud on an iPad or if you need speech to text on a Windows system, visit the Tools page for more information.

Expand your tech toolkit

Livescribe manufactures a smart pen, which is a computer embedded inside of a pen that will record everything you hear, say, write and draw. It can then wirelessly sync notes and audio to an Evernote account where you can replay, organize, search, and share your notes. These pens can hold up to two hundred hours of audio and are compatible with both PCs and Macs, as well as a variety of smartphones. It also has a number of embedded functions that can be helpful to dyslexics. 

Another piece of equipment that your employer may want to invest in is a flatbed scanner, which retails for less than one hundred dollars and will be indispensable for digitizing all types of text into speech to be read aloud by a computer. Check out and example here of the Fujitsu Snap Scan S1300i. This market moves fast so check product reviews before you make a purchase.

Document cameras are also good for scanning. If one has a 5-megapixel camera and a lighting source built in, these can be the fastest way to capture a page. NuScan, Epson, and Elmo manufacture models that take clean, crisp images. Learn more here

Mobile phones often have text-to-speech engines built in. They allows you to access texts, emails, or websites on the go, or to be sure that your Facebook postings are spelled correctly. You will find text-to-speech functionality built into iPads, iPhones, and Android phones, as well as Kindles. Visit the Tools page to see how to turn this functionality on. 

You may have already heard about Siri, the voice function on Apple products running iOS5 or higher.  If you have an iPhone, try asking Siri to “send a text message to [someone in your contacts].” When you are done speaking the message, ask Siri to “read that back to me.” No more sending messages that read “I’ll tax you about sinner” when you really meant “I’ll text you about dinner”! The latest version of the Android speech functionality is also excellent. In the case of either Apple or Android, look for the microphone button on the lower left digital keyboard and it will transcribe your speech, providing you have a solid 3G or faster wireless connection.

Software: Text-to-speech

These days both Apple and Microsoft operating systems have built-in speech engines that are preloaded onto most any new computer. Either of these two speech engines will meet about 80 percent of your text-to-speech needs, and given that they are free with the purchase of the overall system, they’re hard to beat in terms of value for money.

When you think of text-to-speech voices you probably think of terrible computer-generated voices or the canned voices you hear when talking to an airline’s recorded voice system. The quality of text-to-speech voices has gone up dramatically, however. See our tools section for more on how to get an iPad or a PC to read to you.

One critical benefit of text-to-speech engines is that they enable independence: you can quickly listen to something when you need it. By contrast, relying on a human reader to deliver material, even if it’s a downloadable MP3, has some inherent limitations. The first issue is availability. A work has to be popular enough to justify creating the audiobook.   Scanning and using the speech software discussed here allows this.

Hungry for more tools?

Here are a few of our favorite tools:

ClaroRead provides affordable, quality speech software for the desktop. They also have a workable iPhone app called Clarospeak.

Gingersoftware provides a contextual spelling and grammar engine that learns in response to dyslexics. It has a plug-in that allows you to use this inside most browsers.

Don Johnston, Incorporated was founded by a gentleman who is dyslexic and focuses on creating products that help with learning. Their Read Write Gold, Read Outloud and other products are excellent.