May 01 2010

Joining the 4th estate

Category: UncategorizedMarcus @ 11:51 pm

In case people haven’t already seen it on Facebook, my letter about dyspraxia made today’s Guardian. So that’s what it’s like having an editor. I don’t usually bother writing to newspapers about anything but this was different. My own dyspraxia may not be particularly bad but I know what its effects are and I know a lot of people would like my combination of a good job and a very active life, even if they don’t have any kind of disability. I’ve done the crappy jobs in my time, including working in a mail room opening letters, night shifts packing shampoo bottles, sorting partly cured cow hides in a shoe factory, and sticking sanitary towels to leaflets for some kind of mail out for women to pour blue water over like in the adverts. Helps to keep you grounded knowing those kind of things exist but I’m in no hurry to do them again.

I suppose it takes a certain amount of confidence to write to a national newspaper and say you’ve got a disability. I noticed the introduction to my letter mentioned that they’d had a few other letters but they weren’t suitable for publication. Because of what I’ve been through and where I am now it feels a bit like I’ve got a responsibility to make people aware of dyspraxia and that having it doesn’t necessarily stop you from trying things. There’s a fair amount of information for kids with dyspraxia and for employees and employers at lower levels but not so much for higher level professional jobs such as mine. For example I wonder how many people realise that one good way of tracking tasks and remembering things is simply to use the features built into Microsoft Outlook. Most companies use it for email anyway so it’s not as if it’s difficult to get hold of.

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Apr 25 2010


Category: UncategorizedMarcus @ 6:39 pm

There was a letter in the jobs section of yesterday’s Guardian about someone with dyspraxia and dyslexia so I thought I’d stick my oar in and send them a reply about my own experiences. I was diagnosed with dyspraxia in the late 80s when I was at junior school and when hardly anyone had heard of it, with the classic symptoms of messy handwriting, clumsiness and poor coordination and balance. Of course I still have it now but a lot of people are surprised when I tell them, particularly given the progress I’ve made with my martial arts. 2 years seems to be about the average time it takes to get a BJJ blue belt for someone who does trains hard a couple of times a week and who doesn’t have a disability, and I was told that last year’s Thai fight was quite reasonable for a first time.

So how do I do it? First of all, even if I say so myself, I’m pretty damn good at what I do. I learn quickly, don’t give up easily and am prepared to work hard and put the time in. I know what my limitations are and I work round them. Having a disability means there are some things I know I can’t do but I’m not afraid to try to see if I can. I’ve never been able to do cartwheels or handstands but then I’ve never had a particular need to do so. My spacial awareness could be better which is why I tend to get a bit grumpy if someone’s hovering near me or if I’m sparring and there’s people getting too close. Although it goes against one of the central tenets of the motivational speaking industry, there is such a word as “can’t”: that’s why it’s a disability. It’s a bit like a person with one hand trying to provide a full set of 10 fingerprints.

An important bit of this is attitude. I may have dyspraxia but I don’t suffer from it and it’s certainly not one of my defining characteristics. I’ll mention it if it is or becomes an issue but otherwise I tend to keep it to myself. I’m also more interested in what I can do than what I cannot. For people following this blog on Live Journal or my status updates on Facebook it should be quite apparent that this is quite a lot.

Extracts from my email will probably appear in next week’s Graun, but there’s the full version:

Hi Jeremy. I was interested to read the letter from someone with dyspraxia and dyslexia who was having problems finding a fulfilling job. I have dyspraxia myself and some of the issues this person mentions sound quite familiar. First of all, from a legal point of view these conditions are classed as disabilities and employers are required to make reasonable adjustments. These can include giving instructions in writing instead of verbally, breaking complex tasks down into steps, allowing short breaks to allow information to be processed and allowing the use of a computer with a spell checker instead of handwriting. Depending on the size of the employer they may also provide training in time and project management or specialist multi sensory tuition through organizations such as the Dyslexia Institute and the Dyspraxia Foundation. However you do need to make your employer aware of these conditions. The university will probably have carried out some sort of assessment and a written report that they may have provided would be a good starting point for explaining the effects. Employment law relating to developmental disorders is still very sketchy. However the Employment Appeals Tribunal decided in a case of disability discrimination for dyslexia that employers are required to consider what a particular person could do if they were not disabled, not how they compare to people who are not. The case was Paterson v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis.

It also sounds like the writer is suffering from a lack of confidence. Going through a series of low grade jobs will not be helping with this. However, even though the university and college will have provided a certain amount of help, they will have had to carry out certain tasks by themselves that require advanced skills such as research, summarizing articles, and of course the usual social interactions with classmates and tutors. The course may have also included having to stand up and give presentations. One effect of dyspraxia can be social awkwardness and jobs such as working in shops, with children or office admin require interaction with a large number of people who may at times be hostile or impatient. I think it would be a good idea to look for a job that’s less public-facing and more about working in a small team where you get to know each other quite well. This person will have some good skills: you don’t get an honours degree for nothing. Rather than applying for any job going I’d suggest looking for something where you can use those skills. Even if it’s a relatively low level job it will help you to build confidence if you’re doing something that you’re good at. I’ve been working as a software developer since I graduated 9 years ago (coincidentally with a 2:2 as well, although mine was in software engineering) and performance reviews over the last couple of years have commented on how my technical skills are as good as some of the best developers they’ve worked with. Low self confidence and stress can also exacerbate the effects of these conditions and improving confidence will mean they have less of an impact.

These conditions can be extremely tedious and they last for life. One of the ways I deal with dyspraxia is remembering that it is as much a disability as hearing loss or missing limbs and that some things will be difficult or impossible. This is not your fault and there’s no point blaming yourself for it. Concentrating on what you can do instead makes a difference. Despite being classed as disabled I have a good job with plenty of prospects. Dyspraxia also has physical effects such as problems with coordination, spacial awareness and balance, and one way I deal with that is by taking up martial arts. The effects aren’t going to go away but my instructors are aware I have it and getting plenty of practice can help. I’ve been doing Thai boxing for 5 years and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for 2, and was very pleased to be awarded my blue belt a couple of weeks ago. At work I find using the calendar and task list in Microsoft Outlook can be a good way to remember things. To avoid stumbling over words on the phone I sometimes write down what I’m going to say (and find writing down the answers to questions can provide a useful record). Speaking slowly and trying not to gabble can help as well.

The three main charities that support these conditions are DANDA, the Dyslexia Institute and the Dyspraxia Foundation. These have a network of support groups for adults and children. I used to be involved with the West Yorkshire group and try to keep in touch with the local coordinator when I can. I’ve also spoken to Mary Colley who helped to set up the Dyspraxia Foundation and DANDA and found her to be very helpful.

Feel free to pass on my email. Managing these conditions can be hard work but it is possible.