Think Differently about Dyslexia: empowering young people of all abilities

Dyslexic volunteers and supporters from across Microsoft UK came together on Saturday 7 December to run the “Think Differently about Dyslexia” Kids Xmas Boot Camp. Volunteers had a shared mission to empower children with dyslexia by giving them technology that would enable them to unleash their unique thinking skills – cognitive flexibility, creativity, visualisation and complex problem-solving abilities. These skills are going to be critical in the workplace of the future, and businesses need to proactively invest in their neurodiverse workforce.

Photo of child using a Surface with the help of a Microsoft employee at the Think Differently with Dyslexia event

Dyslexia is a mainstream accessibility need

It’s estimated that one in five students has dyslexia, yet there are likely far more who haven’t yet been identified in today’s classrooms. These students – whose language-based learning difference causes a deficiency with phonological processing when learning to read – are often mistakenly labelled as having a learning disability. Because of this, they make up approximately 70 to 85 percent of today’s special education classes.

Their teachers and parents don’t often have the resources or training to help, however passionate they may be. And without the proper support in formative years, a struggling student’s confidence and love of learning can fade.

I can personally relate to this story. By the time I found out I was dyslexic at 19 and in my first year of university, my school experience had already chipped away at my confidence – “below average, disappointing, haphazard spelling, pay more attention, adopt a more conformist attitude, still making basic mistakes and needs to be more structured and organised” and the constant “you really must try harder – you’re clearly bright, so try harder”.

Untapped creative talent

History has shown that great young dyslexic minds can bring tremendous gifts to the world – like the many great dyslexic innovators, artists and leaders before them – if they feel empowered and learn to see dyslexia differently. Many people with dyslexia are highly successful, becoming experts and celebrities in their field. Richard Branson, Agatha Christie, Jamie Oliver, Jennifer Aniston, Lewis Hamilton, Keira Knightley, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford all triumphed over their difficulties and went on to develop their often exceptional gifts.

More businesses today need creativity. Industries such as advertising, media, technology, and the arts are all actively looking at hiring more people with dyslexia into their organisations. Gone are the days when the workplace only prized people with the “three Rs” (reading, writing and arithmetic). Technology means we can now be as productive as we are communicative and creative.

Support and awareness

Since running the Microsoft Dyslexia Kids Boot Camps, I’ve been able to listen to the frustrations of parents whose children remain undiagnosed. Many parents believe that some schools don’t want to diagnose too young or if the condition isn’t “severe enough”, as they just don’t have the resources or headcount to support children with dyslexia.

Unfortunately, research has shown that emotional wellbeing, self-esteem and self-confidence are often key issues for dyslexic young people. Mastering reading and writing is never going to be their strong point. Yet their ability to problem-solve, be creative, tell stories, be visual, and see the bigger, more strategic picture is making the distinct skills of people with dyslexia crucial for our future.

Organisations like Made By Dyslexia and the Valuable 500 initiative are campaigning and creating awareness and support. Made By Dyslexia campaigns aim to change perceptions, so that dyslexia is seen as a different way of thinking rather than a disadvantage.

Changing perceptions and democratising dyslexia

When Made By Dyslexia was founded they used a provocative, imaginative and culturally powerful idea to launch – the Dyslexic Sperm Bank. The “sperm bank”, while not accepting actual donors, was chosen as a theme and setting because some sperm banks have not let dyslexics donate until very recently, and have even described dyslexia as a “neurological disease”, highlighting how far people’s understanding of dyslexia still needs to change.

We were very pleased to have Caroline Casey attend the Dyslexia Boot Camp. Caroline is founder of the Valuable 500 and an award-winning social entrepreneur. She joined in the workshops and posted about the fun she had learning new skills with this inspiring group of kids.

Microsoft were the first company to sign the Made By Dyslexia pledge: to give the 700 million people with dyslexia around the world access to technology that empowers them to excel in their academic journey, and in life. Microsoft, working with Made By Dyslexia, aims to democratise dyslexia support, so that every dyslexic child is understood and given the right support to realise their brilliant potential.

Read more about Microsoft’s commitment and the free training now available for parents and teachers.

“Think Differently about Dyslexia” Boot Camp

This idea started when a work-experience student with dyslexia shadowed me. I arranged for her to meet Hector Minto, Microsoft EMEA Technology Evangelist, to show her the dyslexia tools that could help her through her A-levels. This ended up being an education for me too, and, seeing how technology empowered her, the Microsoft mission statement became very real for me. I suddenly felt compelled to extend this to others, and so the ”Think Differently about Dyslexia” Kids Boot Camp was born (name inspired by Made By Dyslexia).

It started with a volunteer-run, trial summer camp at Microsoft Reading. The Microsoft volunteers then ran a Christmas camp on 7 December at the Microsoft Store in London. They wanted to enable children to believe they could be successful learners, and that technology can do the heavy-lifting, allowing the children to focus on their strengths.

Group of people at the Think Differently about Dyslexia event being shown how to use technology to help

Equipping them with the right tools

The workshops also aimed to help children and parents understand the resources available and how technology can help them though daily life. They taught the use of Dictation (speech to text) and the Immersive Reader – how to read out text, break words into syllables, and increase spacing between lines and letters.

Kids learned that using OneNote, Office Lens, Word and Microsoft Edge, they can access many practical tools that allow them to manipulate text and write in their own way. These features are usefully listed in a Periodic Table of Learning Tools. While the kids learned these new tools, they created a Christmas movie, complete with 3D characters, animations, and even Mixed Reality.

As the technology took care of the reading and writing for them, their excitement, confidence, and creativity shone through. Their parents had the opportunity to listen to role models, hear stories of successful people with dyslexia, and consider their journeys and the strengths they get from having dyslexia.

Hoping to equip a new generation of people with dyslexia

Child wearing Surface headphones and using a Surface with the help of a Microsoft employee

Generous feedback from parents thanked the team for delivering an “awesome day”, and several wrote to say their children had come away “really buzzing” with ideas. Hearing this feedback and seeing the children come to life with technology was inspiring, humbling, and blew most of the volunteers away.

There was a moment that has been publicly shared on LinkedIn when 8- year-old Indy, after configuring his device using Microsoft inclusive/assistive tools, turned to his mum and said:

“I can read, I can do it!”.

These few words sum up all we hoped to achieve, and it gives me goosebumps as I write them.

As a group of passionate individuals who have found a collective cause, we intend to run more boot camps. We continually learn and get feedback and hope to equip a new generation of people with dyslexia to realise their true potential and unleash their unique thinking skills.

I also hope that the education system will begin to change its approach to teaching this 20 percent of the kids in school – because these kids will become Britain’s innovators, artists, entrepreneurs, and leaders, and they will pay back the investment we make in them today.

Reflecting on my own journey

As a person who has dyslexia, I wish I’d had the opportunity to embrace technology and access the toolkit that is available today. I hope the children of the future with dyslexia won’t have to build “coping strategies” that can sap their energy and spontaneity, or hide their gifts due to embarrassment about bad spelling.

I sometimes reflect that, despite the struggles, things worked out pretty well for me. I graduated with a First-Class BA (Hons) in Marketing, I work for one of the most valuable tech companies in the world, which cares about diversity and inclusion, and allows me to work on what I care about. I get to work with amazing people, amazing customers and travel to great places. Just imagine what younger people with dyslexia can achieve when we think differently about dyslexia.

Finally, a massive thank you to all the Microsoft volunteers and the London Flagship Store staff for the use of the amazing event space and support. You have made a difference, and you rock!

Helpful resources

Microsoft + Made By Dyslexia: Helping students with dyslexia thrive with technology

We need to talk about dyslexia at work

What is Dyslexia? – celebrity compilation

Dyslexic Strengths – awareness-training module

Creating a better future through accessibility and inclusion

Made By Dyslexia interviews

Darcey Bussell

Keira Knightley

Orlando Bloom

Jamie Oliver

About the author

Headshot of Kelly MondayKelly Monday joined Microsoft in 2003 and is currently responsible for the global relationship between WPP (the world’s largest advertising company) and Microsoft. In addition, she has become a mental health ambassador at Microsoft UK and is actively involved in diversity and inclusion initiatives. Kelly has dyslexia and recently shared her personal story on LinkedIn.

As a dyslexia champion within Microsoft and externally, Kelly aims to raise awareness about dyslexia as well as the Microsoft tools that can help with reading and writing. She passionately wants people to “Think Differently about Dyslexia” and focus on the amazing skills that people with dyslexia naturally have.