Dyslexia – the bigger picture

by James Bird
Detective Sergeant
West Midlands Police

As part of National Inclusion Week, I wanted to try to write an article on dyslexia in the simplest of terms – its advantages and disadvantages and to share my experiences to provide an insight into how being ‘diagnosed’ later in life has helped me understand why I am who I am. This is in the hope that it will encourage some who read this, and who can relate to the indicators, to get an assessment.

Please try and think about your own experiences whilst reading this and see if anything that I have written rings true personally for you, whatever role or rank you are. Think about your time in school, growing up, your time at work, how you lead and how you think and solve problems. Do you like to design things, build things from scratch? Do you think in images and pictures in your mind? Are you particularly good at coming up with unique solutions to problems, hypotheses to investigations that seem obscure but turn out to be the correct solution, or manipulating information always looking at the bigger picture? Did you or your parents struggle at school with reading or writing, but had an ability to problem solve and lead when others could not? Many dyslexics have had varied careers and roles, sometimes unexplainably related to each other, in their own ways. Are you overly empathetic? These are some of the things to consider whilst reading this article.

Dyslexia is a neurodivergent learning difference (not difficulty) that affects approximately 10% of the population – however it is known that certain professions attract a higher percentage due to their very nature, such as graphic designers, architects and surgeons to name a few. Policing is identified as one of those such professions and potentially putting the percentage up to as high as 40%. The skills of individuals with dyslexia are increasingly becoming more sought-after with many police forces actively recruiting and advertising for dyslexic officers. Dyslexia is sometimes classed as a disability, depending on the individual.

Dyslexics are often creative due to being able to come up with different ways of solving problems and making decisions – they are often troubleshooters, lateral thinkers and able to give differing solutions on different subjects. They are persistent, determined and resourceful with a desire to succeed. Dyslexic brains do not function differently because they are defective but because they are organised to display different strengths at the cost of relevant weaknesses in fine processing.

I must make a point that I am by no means an expert on this subject and am happy to be corrected or challenged on certain points. I can only talk from experience and what I have read but there are far more knowledgeable people in our organisation who could give you a better context to the subject. I am not an academic or scientifically trained and most of the facts I have quoted come collectively from a number of different sources that I have read as part of my own personal understanding and journey with dyslexia. Interestingly, collating information from different sources and presenting it together as a whole to make sense of a problem, is in itself a dyslexic strength. I have included links to the resources I used to write this below, for further information and encourage you to go to the Occupational Health portal for more information on arranging an assessment.

So with all this information I have included, I would like to start off with sharing my own dyslexia experience and how being assessed has helped me, which I hope some can relate to:

For some context: I left school with a couple of CSEs, having been a slightly above average achiever. My favourite subjects were history and geography, with it being noted how I showed a particular affinity to reading maps and remembering them topographically. As the class joker, I was unable to concentrate on things for very long and struggled with learning, but with an ability to distract everyone else in the class!

Having left school, I wanted to join the WMP Police Cadets but my policing career aspirations ended as my eyesight was not good enough. (Thankfully laser eye surgery became a thing in the early 2000s). I had a number of jobs, including building performance kit cars and then pursued a number of my own businesses. I then spent the next 15 years pursuing a career in the dance music industry. This led to me running my own DJ booking agency, and having associated offices in Birmingham, NYC, Moscow and Ibiza. Presenting and talking in front of thousands of people was and is no issue for me. Then in 2005, I decided to just give it all up and join the police.

Now, I want to draw the hereditary parallels of dyslexia I mention later, and the similarities in its indicators and life choices. My father left school unable to read and write – due to dyslexia, unknown then. He became an experienced CNC machinist, taught himself to read and write, joined the Territorial Army, and with over 20 years of leadership, became Company Sergeant Major. He was also a union convenor. He remains the chairman of the Mercian Association and Vice-Chairman of the local British Legion. My grandmothers grandfather, William Johnson joined Birmingham Police in 1881 at the age of 21, went through promotion, was commended by the Chief Constable for arresting a number of burglars and rescuing seven people from a burning building. I mention him here as he was a direct descendant of Dr Samuel Johnson, who wrote A Dictionary of the English Language and has been posthumously diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, a neurodivergent difference. (Thanks to the WMP Museum Archives for the information.)

Having joined the police and struggling horrendously with the assessment centre, especially the writing parts, I passed and I was in! I moved to Brierley Hill Response team. During this time I found it really easy to link offences to other offences, and particularly being able to interpret the definitions to the crimes and using intelligence based policing. I found speaking to people and empathising was easy and learned quickly on the job. I’m outspoken (not sure if that’s a good thing) and during this time I got into trouble for saying what I thought, and how things I believed should be managed. I remember one occasion which is quite relevant in all this, as a point in time, when I was completing a course run by, ironically the very same person who assessed me and also many others for dyslexia. I had been struggling with statements and files, having to create templates for everything so I remembered what to write. Having been unsuccessful in completing the course I remember having a discussion about why I had not passed due to my difficulty around the statement writing. Me being me, I didn’t listen – and in hindsight, I wish I had.

Over the next few years I found myself taking the written and practical parts of my Sergeants exam. This is where I started to struggle in the job. It is at this point I want to note, that if you do think you have dyslexia and you are thinking about taking the exam or moving through the promotion processes, that reasonable adjustments are available at every stage of the process, both in-force and also with the College Of Policing. That said, it still is a difficult process for those with dyslexia, even with reasonable adjustments in place as everyone is different with different indicators.

Leadership is something that I find easy, but the management side and processes I found hard. In relation to the exam, I really struggled with the written part, and it felt like for some unknown reason that I needed to study twice as hard and for longer – I just thought I was stupid, because I knew how to apply the law practically. I found it easier to use patterns to remember certain parts of legislation, pictures and rules, and attending the courses was invaluable, as I was being shown pictures to remember things.

As a leader I have always found it easy to identify different solutions and problems, to make decisions whilst seeing things from all angles, and to manipulate various pieces of intelligence and information to come up with rationales which may at times have seemed obscure

My difficulties came to a head at the written exam: I spent the first 20 minutes staring at the questions, the letters moving around and having brain fog. People fidgeting around and leaving to use the toilet was overly distracting, and what concentration I did have was repeatedly broken. Luckily I was successful because once I had got past the concentration issues, I found answering these questions easy as I was able to imagine each scenario in my head, having practiced answering questions online which were written in the same way, hence conditioning my brain to cope. I was able to apply this to the National Investigators’ Exam also.

I also struggled with the practical scenario-based exam horrendously – this again because of the same visual stress. We were given scenarios to read in a short amount of time and then you had to remember procedures and apply them within five minute periods! I just couldn’t read the text. I barely scraped through on my second attempt passing by 1%, but a pass is a pass.

Then came the promotion boards. The core competencies are a minefield at the best of times, but it was and still is, impossible for me to remember them and then extract them at short notice in a structured way. A dyslexic brain isn’t able to do this without coping mechanisms. Our Force strategies and policies contain pie charts, pictures and data which is all over the page – they are very dyslexic-unfriendly and I cannot process them.

I remember my first board, which in my head I thought I did quite well on. However I failed, and on being given my feedback I was told that I did not present my evidence in the format they wanted – I was told it sounded like I was making it up. This was partially because I could not structure what they wanted and delivered the evidence jumbled up. Luckily, I winged it on my second board not worrying about core competencies because I knew I wouldn’t be able to remember them. The briefing exercise was a nightmare though, again the first 10 minutes of preparation involved me staring at the white paper. In the board, I spoke without thinking about the competencies, as I said I have no issues talking in front of people, and just presenting the best I could which was clearly enough.

As a Detective Sergeant, I found it easier to visit a scene and see what is in front of me and come up with solutions there and then. I know what needs to be done to get the results but I don’t necessarily know myself how to do it – I rely heavily on my team. I find it hard to read crime reports or PDF documents on a screen, preferring to print things off to read. Even then, I thought my eyesight was bad because the letters were blurred and moving, but the optician told me different. I spent a very long time struggling with stress and the subsequent anger at work, but could not understand why because I couldn’t see what the trigger was, as I was able to manage my situation, team and investigations easily.

As a leader I have always found I have a skill to speak out and question people around their decisions, raise points and challenge at any rank, face to face without fear and with empathy. I always found it easy to identify different solutions and problems, to make decisions whilst seeing things from all angles, and to manipulate various pieces of intelligence and information to come up with rationales which may at times have seemed obscure. For me this was frustrating because these abilities were not always received favourably, as they were not a standard response.

It was following taking the Inspectors exam and realising how difficult it was again to study and the issues I was having reading reports, that I decided to get tested for dyslexia. I was having no issues with big picture thinking but I was struggling with the finer details of new policies and procedures, which with all the change in the Force were coming thick and fast.

The dyslexia test involves the use of various coloured overlays to assess visual stress, then an online assessment which tests various elements such as accuracy, sequencing, memory etc. I was found to be dyslexic and reasonable adjustments were suggested. It was also noted I may have indicators of dyspraxia, but at the time of writing West Midlands Police does not test for this.

My reasonable adjustments included the use of coloured screen overlays and overlays to use when reading. These have helped my visual stress no end – the letters actually stay still most of the time! It is suggested I have 25% more time to process information and that I use ClaroRead and Dragon software, which are both designed to assist by reading text and converting it to audio, which has helped. Unfortunately these are not always compatible with our IT systems. I use yellow paper and send emails with yellow background – always a good conversation starter! Even the font and the letter spacing I am writing in now helps me with my writing.

Using these mechanisms to cope with the trade-offs of dyslexia have helped no end, especially around the stress and an understanding of why I am as I am. It has helped me think about what I am doing in these contexts. I am prone to challenging and over-talking, mainly because I now understand my brain is processing information differently and I need to get the information out before I forget. I understand if I’m not looking at someone, I’m not listening to them due to distractions. I feel like I’m a lot more focussed in the things I do also, which is why I would ask anyone who has experienced the same things to consider getting tested.

The police service now has a number of assessors across the country – the help is there, you just have to take the step. Reasonable adjustments are available for all stages of the promotion process including the exams, as well as interview processes for positions within our Force, for those with dyslexia or any other disability. West Midlands Police is a Disability Confident Leader.

What is dyslexia? Facts & myths

Dyslexia is a unique learning difference that is not connected to intelligence. People with dyslexia are not slow, stupid or thick – their brains just work differently. I’m sure no one would describe Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs as thick, both were dyslexic! Those with dyslexia have it, and it lives with them. If someone is described as having mild dyslexia it means they have dyslexia, it just affects them mildly. It is a lifelong condition that can challenge somebody every day. As more is understood about dyslexia, it is easier to understand the causes and indicators. Each individual with dyslexia has unique strengths and weaknesses. Dyslexia can be hereditary and it is found that parents with dyslexia have about a 40% chance of having a child with the same condition.

Contrary to popular misconception, dyslexia is not only about literacy, although weaknesses in literacy are often the most visible sign. Dyslexia affects the way information is processed, stored and retrieved, with problems of memory, speed of processing, time perception, organisation and sequencing. It is a reflection of a different pattern of brain organisation and information processing that creates strengths as well as challenges. These are of course connected, and are best understood as trade-offs. They often show strengths in big picture processing although they may struggle with fine-detail processing, something I have identified with myself.

Another common and well known indicator is visual stress: text can appear distorted and words or letters appear to move or become blurred. White paper or backgrounds can appear too dazzling and make print hard to decipher. This is as a result of the fine detail trade-off. The use of colour overlays is a common adjustment to reduce the stress, and the majority of (but not all) negative indicators can be addressed with reasonable adjustments.

Many people with dyslexia successfully develop and implement coping strategies, which is why sometimes people live with dyslexia without it being identified. Many people are able to compensate through technology, reliance on others and an array of self-help mechanisms, the operation of which require sustained effort and energy. Unfortunately these strategies are prone to break down under stressful conditions which impinge on areas of weakness. People with dyslexia are particularly susceptible to stress, compared with the ordinary population, with the result that their impairments become even more pronounced.

Other related learning differences include:

  • Dyspraxia which is a difficulty with co-ordination and the organisation of movement, anxiety in unfamiliar situations, orientation/place-finding problems and the experience of sensory overload
  • Dyscalculia, a difficulty to understand simple number concepts and to master basic numeracy skills; this includes learning number facts and procedures, telling the time, time keeping, understanding quantity, prices and money
  • Dysgraphia, a difficulty with writing. In addition to writing words that are difficult to read, people with dysgraphia tend to use the wrong word for what they’re trying to communicate

There are a number of explanations relating to what dyslexia is and why there is a difference in the way people with dyslexia and non-dyslexics think. Unfortunately, as I said earlier I am not scientifically minded, but the following seems to be the best and most popular explanation that I have found from multiple sources.

Right Brain vs Left Brain

The right side of the brain is where large scale/’big picture’ or global features of objects are processed. Information in relation to creating connections, linking information together, seeing relations and getting the ‘gist’ of things is also processed here. The dyslexic brain sees the essence of things: spotting the larger context, having abilities to see new, unusual or distant connections, to recombine things in a novel ways and see general inventiveness and best fits. However, the trade-off is people with dyslexia use the right brain more extensively than the left side, hence their difficulty with fine detail processing, which creates a difficulty with reading. Think of looking at a word, seeing the first letter and the last, then making up what’s in the middle, but still getting it wrong! Or think about looking at a forest, but finding difficulty in processing the individual trees.

The non-dyslexic brain in contrast however, is excellent at functions like precision, accuracy, efficiency, speed, automatic, reliability, replicability and focus, due to being able to use the left side of the brain more extensively.

The simplest explanation is the non-dyslexic brain excels at spotting differences, whilst the dyslexic brain excels at recognising similarities.

Advantages explained

Unfortunately, it is human nature to concentrate on just the disadvantages, but dyslexia confers many advantages within the police service, and is why I believe policing is such an attractive career option for dyslexics. These areas are linked to a range of skills, such as: ‘big picture’ thinking, problem-solving and lateral thinking abilities, an instinctive understanding of how things work, originality, creativity and exceptional visual-spatial ability. Many with dyslexia show the ability to think in 3D perspectives and to think in pictures. This has a potential trade-off of struggling with 2D perspectives such as images and writing on paper, and mirroring when writing, e.g. using the letter b instead of d, the number 6 instead of 9, and so on.

Many with dyslexia will show an ability to perceive more distant or unusual connections or to detect context and gist. The trade-off for this ability is a tendency to complicate certain simple tasks, and over-sensitivity to environmental factors such as noises, movements and other sensations.

Many dyslexics excel in the ability to perceive information as mental scenes that they construct from past personal experience, and many have the ability to reconstruct past events that they didn’t witness or to predict future scenarios. As you can see these are ideal strengths to put to use in policing scenarios, and many people will have instinctively used them without knowing.

Many individuals who have dyslexia can also show a certain set of specifically related artistic and entrepreneurial skills. Famous individuals with dyslexia and other learning difference dyslexia include, as previously mentioned: Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Sir Alan Sugar, Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, Winston Churchill, JFK, Agatha Christie, James Dyson, Leonardo da Vinci, Mother Teresa, Napoleon, Thomas Edison, Muhammed Ali, Tom Cruise, Cher, Orlando Bloom, Tommy Hilfiger, Andy Warhol, Beethoven, Mozart, John Lennon, Noel Gallagher, George Washington, Walt Disney, Picasso, Steven Spielberg, Will Smith, Whoopi Goldberg, Robbie Williams, Jamie Oliver, Daniel Radcliffe and Prince Harry – to name just a few.

I hope this article has helped someone in some small way to describe the complexities of dyslexia, and to understand that having a brain that thinks differently is a positive. ∎

Sources of Information: