Dyslexia – difference is what makes us great

Darcie Coombs - area manager at Waterman Aspen

Meet Darcie Coombs, an Area Manager and Civil Engineer. Darcie is also part of our Equity, Diversity & Inclusion team and is passionate in advocating for dyslexic and neurodiverse people in the civil engineering industry and the built environment. Here, she shares her experiences on her career so far as a dyslexic person.

I’m quite fortunate as my dyslexia was diagnosed in high school. I attended a private selective girls school where they had a learning support department and smaller class sizes compared to the national average for my area. This enabled my dyslexia to be picked up a lot easier in comparison to my brother’s experience – he attended the local state school where they had much larger class sizes, making it more difficult to spot, and perhaps there was not as much training surrounding dyslexia. Research has found over half of all schools globally fail to recognise dyslexic challenges and there are 1 in 5 dyslexic students in every classroom (Made By Dyslexia, 2022). My brother left education without a diagnosis, as do 80% of dyslexic people (British Dyslexia Association, 2020). Being diagnosed with dyslexia meant I had access to support systems, including revision tools, learning support department and I was able to receive extra time in my school and university examinations. However, despite the allowances, at times the arrangements still did not allow for the full adjustments recommended in my diagnostic assessment, therefore meaning I was still at a detriment.

Until quite recently, I saw my dyslexia as a weakness rather than a strength. However, I’d like to highlight these strengths as superpowers, so we can be more strategically placed in organisations. My overall aim is to empower others to speak up on issues to better educate and develop our industry – change can only happen from within and raising awareness will only make it better for all.

Issues in the civil engineering industry

For a long time, and still to this day, people commonly misconceive dyslexics as ‘unintelligent’ or less likely to succeed (SEN, 2021). However, it is thought that up to 40% of the world’s greatest innovators and CEOs are dyslexic (Made By Dyslexia, 2023) and the EY ‘Value of Dyslexia’ report found that the World Economic Forum’s future skills needs mirror that of a dyslexic’s skillsets (EY, 2023). So why are people made to feel embarrassed to talk about it, and why do some businesses still not recognise the valuable contribution dyslexic people make to our sector?

In my experience as a dyslexic person navigating the civil engineering consultancy path, I faced unique challenges and I found a way to navigate these obstacles. In my early career, my work was predominantly task-driven and typically assigned to me. This constrained my access to the bigger context of the work being delivered, being unable to appreciate and/or see the bigger picture was a challenging space to be in. However, I managed to tap into and showcase my ability to lead and plan strategically through co-chairing the ICE NE Gast (now ECNet) committee. I recognised that it was a way of working that I loved, and it allowed me to change my work environment to be more rewarding. As I have progressed with these changes, I have been able to utilise my strengths to provide more dynamic contributions by taking on a more strategic role and have been exposed to motivating and driving a vision by tapping into my creativity. If the role I was in from the start had been matched to my strengths, I feel I would have been able to flourish from an earlier point in my career. I struggled in a task-driven workplace because of the tunnel vision and restrictive system; therefore, I’d like to highlight that there will be people in positions where they don’t perform as well due to the nature of that specific role or workplace set up, which would ultimately limit their progression. I believe roles should be tailored to people’s strengths and not judged by their weaknesses. There are strengths in dyslexic people which neurotypical people may not possess – dyslexics are typically big picture thinkers, which leads them to excel when working with complex interconnected systems.

Dyslexic strengths

  • Good problem solvers
  • Creative
  • Observant
  • High levels of empathy
  • Excellent big-picture thinkers
  • Working with complex interconnected systems
  • Strong narrative reasoning
  • Three-dimensional thinking


Diversity breeds innovation. Therefore, we need to adopt a culture which embraces diversity and puts people in positions where they thrive. Differences should be celebrated, and it’s important for people to know that there are many roads to success – one person’s journey may look completely different to another. With determination and support of a diverse and inclusive work environment, I believe dyslexics can contribute a unique perspective and problem-solving skills to the civil engineering industry.

A mentor or advocate can also make such a difference. I’ve been lucky to have a mentor who thinks outside the box, encourages individuality and utilises their strengths. I wasn’t aware that dyslexia was part of the neurodiverse umbrella until my manager mentioned it to me to make sure I had the support I needed. If you would like to find out about neurodiversity and the built environment, a new British Standard has been released PAS 6463 in 2022.

People may try to change themselves to ‘fit the mould’. But they would lose what makes them authentically them. I would encourage everyone to challenge, raise awareness and speak up to highlight issues they may be facing in order to create lasting change.

Resources & support


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