What would it be like to be so sensitive to noise that you couldn’t work in an open space? What might it be like to complete a report when you have trouble writing? What if it every written message you received required a long process of decoding? These are only a few of the challenges that people with learning disabilities (LD’s) experience everyday in the workplace.

Invisible disabilities are more difficult to understand and consequently mystify educators, doctors, and parents alike. Because the study of learning disabilities is a new field, there is a lack of awareness which results in many misdiagnosed persons, wrongfully labeled as having low IQ or cognitively delayed.

It is estimated that 15% of our population has a disability, yet it is difficult to know how many constitute LD’s. But what affect do LD’s have on the workplace? For employees? For employers? It is hard to know what is the financial impact that LD’s have on a workplace; but we do know that it can be costly when employees cannot reach their true career potential if they lack the accommodations or are afraid to speak up to ask for what they need to do their job well. Furthermore, employees may be unaware of simple solutions that can assist them to be more productive and rewarded in the workplace.

But what is an “LD”? According to the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, this refers to: “a number of disorders which may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding or use of verbal or nonverbal information. These disorders affect learning in individuals who otherwise demonstrate at least average abilities essential for thinking and/or reasoning. As such, learning disabilities are distinct from global intellectual deficiency.”

LD’s stem from impairments related to one or more of the following processes which are associated with perceiving, thinking, remembering or learning. These include, but are not limited to: language processing; phonological processing; visual spatial processing; processing speed; memory and attention; and executive functions (e.g. planning and decision-making). 

Eight years ago, after a 7 hour assessment, I was diagnosed with a learning disability. The conclusion of the assessment began to shed light on many areas of my life. Why did I find so many of my previous careers to be so boring after a few months? Why was it so stressful for me to work in a cubicle? Why did I detest sitting at a desk all day? Why did I not notice some of the details that were so obvious to others? (I would never trust myself to identify a criminal in a police line-up!)

Now that I have my own business, I have been fortunate enough to be able to stick with what I am good at and parcel out what I am not to other people. I have control over my environment and my quiet office enables me to produce large amounts of work within a stress-free environment. I recognize that this is a luxury that I have now that I didn’t once have or that many others with LD’s go without. Fear and shame of asking for accommodations and the stigma that goes along with admitting that there is a barrier when you seem to be coping just fine prevent people from getting the help that they need.

I would certainly encourage anyone who thinks they may have a learning disability to get a professional assessment conducted. I would stay away from diagnosing yourself or others with some of the online tests which are available because you might end up with a different diagnosis altogether. Many benefit plans will cover these assessments under the umbrella of psychological services. In any case don’t let any positive results deter you from what you really want to do. Instead, look at it as a window that has been opened to you shedding light on some of the strategies that you can use to help you learn more easily.

An LD is not the end of the world. In fact, research has shown that while people with LD’s may have some challenges in processing information, they can be above average in other dimensions. Did you know for instance that NASA deliberately tries to recruit persons with dyslexia because of their excellent 3D perceptions, problem solving and spatial awareness? More than half of their employees have dyslexia. Were you aware that adults with ADHD are associated with creativity, innovation, the ability to think outside the box, multi-tasking, and great with change and chaos? Sounds like some of the job descriptions I have seen lately!

In any case, whether you are an employer trying to understand a request for accommodations or an employee with an LD, we hope to increase your awareness as well as provide you with practical solutions for the workplace.

Evelina Silveira
Editor, Inclusion Quarterly

Used with permission of the author