the challenges of a learning difficulty in a workplace set up against you
8th March 2018
Most people dislike the office from time to time, but for those of us with learning difficulties or disabilities, the workplace presents a litany of hidden challenges. Harsh fluorescent lighting, the intrusion of an office radio, the constant interruption of well-meaning colleagues: these everyday occurrences can create a hostile or distressing environment for people with Aspergers, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia or ADHD.
I struggled unwittingly for many years with what is called a specific learning difficulty. Report cards unfailingly told the story of a bright kid who struggled with her learning environment: although I read several years ahead of my classmates and excelled at topics that piqued my interest, I always ran out of time to complete exams. I was also very messy: smudged handwriting, misplaced books, papers flying out of my bag. While today’s teachers are taught to recognise the signs of a learning difficulty, I was told off for not applying myself more and for being lazy, which had a huge knock-on effect on my self-esteem. While a mental health condition isn’t the same as mental illness, one often triggers the other: feelings of inadequacy or not fitting in can create lifelong struggles with depression and anxiety. It’s estimated that 25% of people in the UK will struggle with mental illness at some point in their life – the rate is higher for people with learning difficulties.
This pattern continued at university. Some days I would plough through mountains of work and feel on top of the world, but other days were write-offs from start to finish, leaving me in a state of despair. The morning my dissertation was due, I couldn’t find my car keys anywhere, which was unfortunate – my dissertation was locked in the boot! Despite these challenges, I still completed a B.A. and M.A.
Adult working life presented a new set of challenges.
Always a night owl, and used to working in short, quick bursts of creativity, each morning I would grip my cup of coffee and stare bleary-eyed at my emails trying to wake up. Office chatter and sales calls sent me hopelessly off-piste of my to-do list. I asked my boss if I could work with headphones or remotely one day a month, but he thought it indicated a lack of interest in my job, even though he acknowledged that my output was some of the best they’d had on the team. The issue wasn’t the quality of my work, it was my inability to fit into the office ecosystem.
Getting a late-in-life diagnosis of ADHD was a big aha! moment that explained so much, from why I always misplaced keys and travel documents to why, much to my partner’s confusion, I hated bright lights and loud noises. With this newfound knowledge came some regret about not having an earlier diagnosis, but medication and new self-awareness improved my life drastically. Mostly, a new horizon of possibility opened in front of me. Did I want to continue in a work structure that inhibited my success, or was this an opportunity to redesign my professional life?
The bottom line is that today’s offices are set up almost entirely for the neurotypical.
This is a shame for staff and for business: given the right environment, people with ADHD are known for their entrepreneurial, creative spirit and original approaches to problem-solving. Sir Richard Branson and IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, among others, famously have ADHD.
The Hoxby Collective’s core vision is to create a happier, more fulfilled society by changing how people work and allowing them remote, flexible workstyles. I was already a freelancer when I joined, but Hoxby provided me with something I lacked: a community and all the best parts of an office. Hoxby’s #workstyle is godsend for those of us looking for flexibility, whether it’s due to parenting, caring, disability, or just temperament!
For me, the ability to choose my projects and hours, and to curate my working environment, has helped me onto a career track I’m happy about, and has allowed me to reclaim my Sunday evenings from a feeling of foreboding I’ve had since school. I now look forward to the week ahead.