Aged seven, my son was diagnosed with Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), also known as dyspraxia. Lots of well-known figures also have the condition including Daniel Radcliffe, Cara Delevigne, Florence Welch and Albert Einstein was even believed to have had dyspraxia. You have probably known someone with dyspraxia and been unaware of their condition – the child at school labelled clumsy, messy, not gifted at sport, fidgety. A particularly observant teacher noticed that no matter how many times she asked my son to sit up straight on the mat, to do cursive handwriting or to stop fidgeting in his seat, he just could not do it. DCD means he has issues with coordination, sequencing, motor planning, organising himself and his environment, and because of problems with balance, will fidget and squirm to keep upright. DCD is a neurodevelopmental condition not a learning disorder. It is a lifelong condition.
Every new school year, to help smooth the transition to a new teacher, my husband and I update our son’s ‘passport’ which explains his condition, how it affects him, the consequences of his condition and things that can be put in place in the classroom to help mitigate potential problems. As he grows older, his development, his needs, his behaviour and learning evolves. The passport anticipates potential new issues for the new school year. As he goes into Year 6, for example, the use of a protractor and a compass is introduced and so specialist equipment needs to be considered, as well as instructions broken down into small steps on how to use the equipment. The passport acts as a checklist and a guide.
We’re not apologetic about his condition and his needs. We accept the condition and take practical steps to manage it and help our son grow, careful to work collaboratively and sensitively with the SENCO and his teachers. We encourage our son to ‘own’ his condition and to politely refer to his ‘passport’ when he’s struggling and finding it difficult to articulate his challenges to a teaching professional who he might not be getting quite the right support from. He wears his condition with pride and is learning from a young age to share his needs, to make polite demands of those working with him, for their patience and acceptance.
At Riot Communications, when we recruit, our MD, Preena Gadher, talks in interviews with potential candidates about creating an environment at work where colleagues can be their true selves. The daughter of working class, immigrant parents she has had to code switch in previous jobs to assimilate. She doesn’t want that for anyone at Riot.
Part of being your true self at work does of course involve thinking about your particular needs, personal to your background and circumstances. We ask candidates what their needs are to do their very best work. One interviewee was so stunned by the question tears came to her eyes. She said she’d never been asked that question by an employer before and had to have 24 hours to think about it. She was so grateful. Wouldn’t every professional environment benefit from asking such a simple question? And following through of course.
Needs can range from flexible start or finish times for exercise or a counselling session, to a colleague with dyslexia needing extra time to proofread an email or piece of copy. An employee might need access to a prayer room or extended holidays to do long haul trips to visit family overseas or weekly check-ins with a line manager or Mental Health First Aider on their Wellness Action Plan. When considering a career opportunity, a potential employee might have higher needs such as an informal, non-corporate working environment or a role that is purpose driven and has social impact. I’m a working mother and my needs are based around flexible working so I can be present for my son, as well as the business. Working in an environment where we accept and celebrate that everyone has different physical, emotional, and practical needs, can only mean a happier, more diverse and productive workforce. The better we are as employers at understanding our teams’ needs, empowering and encouraging them to, like my son, create their own ‘passports’ that can be referred to when necessary, the better a working environment we will create.
There’s no mistaking that life in a PR agency is fast-paced, high pressure and full of demands so finding the time to consider your own and your employees’ needs is often easier said than done. The PRCA PR census 2019 showed that, on average, 62% of PR and communications professionals are contracted to work 35 hours a week. However, in reality only 21% of them work those hours. 50% end up working 45 hours a week. This figure reflects trends in previous Censuses, but in 2019 there was a 5% increase in the number of people working an additional 10 hours a week. In addition, 19% of respondents claim to work 55 hours a week. 32% of respondents suffered from or had been diagnosed with mental ill health. The PR industry is waking up to a mental health emergency and the findings detailed in the PRCA’s Opening the Conversation: Mental Wellbeing in Public Relations report, places enormous importance on the industry taking responsibility for employees and finding an alternative to the ‘always on’ culture. Finding time for our needs has never been more important.
This school term, we introduced a notebook into our son’s support plan so he can doodle in it when he needs to focus. Creativity spills from the margins. The school bought him a wobble cushion to help with his balance, posture and core stability. He gets fewer tellings off for fidgeting as a result. He didn’t know he needed a wobble cushion or a doodle pad but both have improved the quality of his work and the experience he has at school. It took the patient observation, acceptance and willingness of the professionals around him to help him discover what he needed. Perhaps we all need a doodle pad and a wobble cushion? Perhaps we just need someone willing to take the time to sit down and talk to us about our needs, someone to take notice, someone to care.