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Civil Service

Personal disability stories: Part 5 ‒ Ross’s story

Philip Rutnam, Perm Secretary for the Department for Transport and Civil Service Disability Champion
Philip Rutnam, Permanent Secretary for the Home Office, and Civil Service Disability Champion

This latest blog post in the series of civil servants' personal disability stories features Ross Duncan talking about dyslexia.

I had the pleasure of hearing Ross speak at a recent Disability Champions Group meeting. He shared excellent insights. For example, dyslexia affects roughly 10% of the population, making it the largest adult disability group in the UK. For the Civil Service, this equates to around 43,000 people. Unfortunately, not enough people receive a diagnosis, or, like Ross, they are diagnosed late in life. This means they are not receiving the support they need to realise their full potential.

Ross’s story highlights the work needed to raise awareness, remove the stigma, and use to the full the talents that people with dyslexia can bring to an organisation.

Ross’s story

Ross Duncan

I first joined the Civil Service on 29 February 1988 as a porter/messenger for the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.  

Looking back, it was an ironic choice for my first real job as, at that time, I did not share the same enthusiasm for books as my colleagues, and the job role did not play to my strengths. It required spelling, short-term memory skills and an eye for detail, attributes that were not my forte. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I required constant reminders from colleagues and was perceived as awkward. It was not until many years later that I was diagnosed as dyslexic and became aware that these are common traits in people with dyslexia.

There are many things that I am good at too: an ability to see the bigger picture, to offer creative solutions to problems, and to connect with people. It was just that in this role I had limited opportunity to apply them.

Nevertheless, I remained highly committed, travelling three and half hours each day to work. I had aspirations to better myself, achieve promotion and obtain qualifications, which had eluded me at school. I enrolled on a business studies college evening course for a number of years to develop my CV and learn new transferrable skills.


After 10 years, feeling frustrated that my efforts to improve myself had been disregarded, I reluctantly left the Civil Service to accept what I thought was my dream job, working in a call centre, a 10-minute drive from home.

This lasted only 4 months as, due to my dyslexia, I found it difficult to remember key items of information in a high-pressured environment. (My dyslexia is heightened when I feel stressed.) My lasting memory was of walking through a large open-plan office, feeling that everyone was watching me, head down, holding back tears and feeling totally depleted.  

Two years elapsed before I was reinstated in the Civil Service, moving to Army HQ in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, for seven years; before moving to HM Passport Office, my current employer, in 2007.

Life-changing moment

It was only in my early 40s – after reading a book about Sir Jackie Stewart, the three-time Formula 1 World Champion – that I was finally diagnosed with dyslexia. I had officiated at various motorsports events over 20 years and he was a local hero of mine. In the book, Sir Jackie revealed that he had discovered his dyslexia at the same time as one of his sons, prompting me to go for a test. This was a life-changing moment, as I was then able to access the simple adjustments that I need, such as learning to use mind maps or crib sheets to improve short-term memory, and having the flexibility to take micro-breaks when recognising potential triggers for stress.

Graphic and quote from Ross Duncan

Since then, my career has been turned on its head. I am now a champion and ambassador for dyslexia. I was for ten years a national committee member in the Home Office disability network, and was invited to share my personal experience and insights with Sir Philip Rutnam’s Disability Champions Group.  

Outside the Civil Service, I have worked with a number of international dyslexia charities and published articles of interviews I’ve conducted with famous people with disabilities. Fittingly, the first interviewee was Sir Jackie Stewart, whose biography was where this all started for me.

Making simple adjustments to support talent

Ross’s story is a useful reminder that people with dyslexia have a unique skill set and mindset. They need simple adjustments, such as designing the job role around their strengths, to create a level playing field and allow them to shine.

Meeting of members of the Civil Service Dyslexia and Dyspraxia Network
Scene from the launch event for the Civil Service Dyslexia and Dyspraxia Network

This was a common theme at the launch of the new Civil Service Dyslexia and Dyspraxia Network. Speakers talked candidly about areas of work they found challenging, such as balancing accounts and proof-reading documents, before describing attributes such as sheer determination and creativity they have demonstrated in overcoming these. The overriding and recurring theme was that members present viewed their dyslexia or dyspraxia as a wonderful gift, an ability to “cut through the dross”, see things differently, get to the heart of the issue, and put forward an idea that no one else has thought of. We need to get better at recognising and nurturing this talent.

Graphic with legend 'A great place to work'The new network aims to connect up dyslexic and dyspraxic colleagues across the Civil Service to share best practice and personal experiences. Anyone wishing to join should email

Finally, my thanks to Ross for sharing his personal experiences of dyslexia.

Follow Philip on Twitter: @PhilipRutnam.

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  1. Comment by Rozanne Kidd posted on

    Thanks for sharing your story Ross and I am pleased you working with us in HM Passport Office has enabled you to feel valued and add value to support others with dyslexia. From some of the comments made above, others have not had the same support from their leaders and colleagues.This is why its so important that people feel able to ask for help and know where to find it.

  2. Comment by June Armstrong-Pincott posted on

    I'm a DSE Risk Assessor and have assessed many staff over years with dyslexia and dyspraxia; each person was different with differing abilities, strengths and weaknesses. Every time I encountered colleagues like Ross, I was told how able bodied amongst you [I'm disabled] dismiss those with these disabilities as awkward/unwilling to participate/lazy or slack these assumptions label perfectly wonderful colleagues and can have a profound effect on lowering their confidence and esteem. I worked with a lovely colleague with dyspraxia all she required was that staff break down emails sent to her into paragraphs in small chunks so she could read them more easily; I worked with another he joined a drama group to improve his outside social and personal work interactions, however *2 colleagues thought it immensely funny to wind him up as it was easy for him to lose his temper - this was one of cruellest actions I've ever seen in 38 years in HMRC.
    I began to research these disabilities for my own DSE/Health & Safety understanding in relation to my 2 colleagues and I now always extract information from specialist Dyslexia/Dyspraxia external websites [or for other disabilities/injuries etc] to forward to their managers so they understand their difficulties and can talk to their staff regarding bad behaviours as above*.
    All who are disabled ask the able bodied for understanding, patience and human kindness and this is not too much to ask. No one should be ever labelled but I myself have had similar treatment for my own disability.

  3. Comment by Vina posted on

    Thank you for sharing your story
    It's nice to know there is support out there

  4. Comment by Tracey Springthorpe posted on

    A very interesting and thought provoking story, I'm so glad things are looking up for you now. It just goes to show what can be achieved when the odds can be against you.

  5. Comment by Mark Wood posted on

    Thanks Ross for sharing your story. I too get more dyslexic when stressed, and I find that scenario becoming more commonplace, as Senior Managers insists on loading up the caseload to replace staff lost as a result of BOF.
    I foolishly decided to do an apprenticeship in leadership and management, and to be honest due to the lack of support I feel no further forward than when I started this time last year. I have been offered support, which obviously I accepted, but then nothing ever comes of it!

  6. Comment by Madonna posted on

    Well done Ross

  7. Comment by Jonathan Holt posted on

    Inspirational story. I've worked in roles that have both suited my dyslexia and not suited it. I've definitely struggled in roles which I've not been suitable for and like Ross my dyslexia gets worse when I'm stressed. As a more people become open with their conditions the more others will realise how best to work with dyslexic colleagues.

  8. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you Ross for sharing your journey. I am really glad that you were able to overcome the challenge and you have been able to go on to achieve fantastic things.

    Hopefully your story will help to break the stigma concerning Dyslexia, which still unfortunately exists as well as inspire others who may not have already so to connect up with the Network and hopefully feel able to share best practice and their experiences.

    I wish you well for the future.

  9. Comment by Suze posted on

    Very amazing read Ross. I too was diagnosed late in life at the tender age of 16 so its really brilliant to see someone progressing.

  10. Comment by John and Margaret posted on

    Hi Ross. Congratulations on your article. So happy that you have made progress and feel so positive and able to deal with your Dyslexia. Well written and good to read your article. Keep going. Greetings.

  11. Comment by Mike Bedford posted on

    Great blog Ross, well done ?

  12. Comment by Lynsey Murray posted on

    Thank you for sharing your story, it's great that you were able to meet Sir Jackie Stewart too and let him know how he has made a difference.

  13. Comment by Louise Johnson posted on

    Thank you for sharing.I was diagnosed with Dyslexia in college and have had roles within my career in the civil service that were not really suittable for people with this condition. I was moved from an FLM role to a complaints caseworker role a couple of years ago and I struggled with this role. No matter how manay times I explained to my line manager I struggled due to my condition, there was no allowances, understading, or reasonable adjustments and I was left feeling unsupported, stupid and heartbroken. Thankfully I was succesful in applying for a role as a support to a Grade 7, and my life turned around and I am in the role that is perfect for me. The Grade 7, Caroline Davies is an amazing, supportive and inspirational leader and recognises the stregths I have. We need more leaders like Caroline, who sees what we can do, rather than what we cant.

  14. Comment by Richard Small posted on

    A really informative and thought provoking story. Thanks for sharing Ross and best wishes for your future career.

  15. Comment by Lucy posted on

    This is great to read - thanks, Ross - and it's good to hear of a new support network.

    I know there are quite a few cross-Civil Service diversity networks now, and some cross-public sector ones too. It would be so good if the Civil Service as an organisation could support these with more infrastructure so that things like web-pages and contact emails could be offered. I love that people volunteer to be a contact point, but in three years' time, this blog post is quite likely to be still on line but the personal email address given in the text may not be correct any more. Can we improve on that somehow, for all such networks?