Source: Reprinted from Design for Success: An Employer’s Guide to Learning Disabilities

Employers generally want to hire individuals who will be productive workers and who will be able to keep the job in which they are placed, to progress in skill levels and to achieve the best results possible for the company. Many employers of course are also concerned about the success level experienced by the employee, since they recognize that successful employees are much more likely to be loyal to the company where they work.

The Conference Board of Canada published an Employability Skills Profile focusing on what employers are looking for when they are hiring. This critical skill profile is described as the compilation of academic, personal management and teamwork skills, which are desirable for the foundation of a high-quality Canadian workforce both today and tomorrow.
Under academic or cognitive skills it is stated that Canadian employers need a person who can:


  • understand and speak the languages in which business is conducted;
  • listen to understand and learn;
  • read, comprehend and use written materials, including graphs, charts and displays;
  • write effectively in the languages in which business is conducted


  • think critically and act logically to evaluate situations, solve problems and make decisions;
  • understand and solve problems involving mathematics and use the results;
  • use technology, instruments, tools and information systems effectively;
  • access and apply specialized knowledge from various fields e.g. skilled trades, technology, physical sciences, arts and social sciences;


  • continue to learn for life

While it is easy to see why employers might feel that the above listing of cognitive skills will enhance the employability of any potential employee, the question must be asked: Does every position in your company reflect the need for these characteristics and does the pay for each job reflect these expectations?

While the Employability Skills Profile states that it is recognized that employers need to accommodate individual differences and to provide equal opportunities to a diverse workforce, including persons with disabilities, it does not offer advice to employers on how such accommodation might work under various circumstances.

The Physical Demands Analysis process, which is widely used for persons who have physical limitations in carrying out certain tasks, recommends that each employer for each job review the physical requirements such as strength, mobility, etc. It is recommended that job descriptions should include the skills and qualifications required to do the job, as well as providing specific information on how the job is physically performed, when it comes to the essential duties.

Many job descriptions provide for some flexibility in job duties by including the phrase “other duties as assigned”. Frequently this phrase is applicable to approximately 10% of the job. In determining the essential components of a job, it is usually held that less than one hour a day spent on one particular aspect of a job could be transferable to another staff member and therefore would not qualify as an essential duty.

A task is usually considered an essential job task, if it:

  • constitutes a substantial proportion of the work involved in the job
  • is an integral part of the job, i.e. even if minor in time allocation, it cannot be passed to someone else without substantially interfering with the employee’s ability to do the rest of the job effectively
  • cannot be delegated to another person

In reviewing these components, it is also helpful to identify whether there is any accommodation, such as the use of technical aids, that might permit the employee with a disability to carry out the task or tasks with which they might have difficulty.

When it comes to the cognitive demands of a job, there is generally less willingness on the part of employers to vary the stated requirements. This primarily reflects some of society’s preconceived notions and some of the myths surrounding certain cognitive skills, such as “all people who are bright can read” and the converse “people who cannot read cannot be intelligent”.

Therefore, when developing a job description for any position, it is important to consider which are the essential cognitive requirements and which are “nice to have”.

It is disappointing to realize that, in spite of the success, wide use and obvious benefits for both employers and employees of the Physical Demands Analysis, there is no companion Cognitive Demands Analysis in place. What follows here is a much less formal listing of ideas, which employers and human resources personnel could use in developing a listing of the cognitive demands of a particular job as well as focusing on what accommodation might be needed in assisting a person with learning disabilities to be fully productive and effective in holding down a job.

In evaluating these requirements, we would advise that the goal should be to:

  • establish the essential cognitive components of a job;
  • identify which components could be appropriately carried out by someone else;
  • identify what compensatory strategies the potential employee who has learning disabilities will have to develop and utilize in order to carry out the essential tasks of the job;
  • identify what job accommodations could be made by the employer in order to improve the employee’s job performance;
  • identify what training needs the employee presents in relation to the cognitive demands of the job.

When considering these components, it is advisable that you analyse carefully exactly what the individual holding the job needs to do, needs to know before being trained for the job and whether there are alternative ways of assisting him or her to carry out the essential tasks.

The first consideration is the educational achievement requirements of each job. Does this position require the employee to have a high school graduation diploma? A college graduation diploma? A university degree at the undergraduate or graduate level?

Is this because of:

  • knowledge or expertise requirements? e.g. this individual has to know specific facts and skills taught in a particular college course, which will not be included in the training offered to employees;
  • professional association or licensing requirements? e.g. in order to work as a nurse in a clinic, the employee has to be eligible to be the member of a particular professional body;

Although it is often suggested that a certain educational level will guarantee the attainment of significant cognitive skills and/or a higher level of maturity, these are unlikely to be valid or acceptable reasons for making such a requirement.

Cognitive skills

  • does this job involve significant reading on an ongoing basis?
  • is the requirement for reading primarily for the purposes of training?
  • is the primary need for the individual to comprehend and be able to use certain information and would therefore taped material suffice?
  • could a person with visual impairments, i.e. someone who obviously cannot read printed material carry out this job? What modifications would be available to such an employee?


  • does this job involve the individual in having to handwrite material?
  • is the requirement to use or process language, such that written or typed material has to be produced, such as letters, reports, etc.?
  • does this job call for good spelling skills or the use of correct grammar? Can this requirement be met through the use of technical aids, such as a specialized software package?


  • does this job require the individual to receive verbal instructions, which cannot be communicated in any other fashion?
  • does this job require the individual to take extensive notes from spoken information?
  • what would be required for a person who has a hearing impairment to do this job?


  • does this job require the employee to carry out mathematical computational tasks? Would a technical aid such as a computer, calculator, electronic adding machine, etc. assist in carrying out the tasks of this job?
  • does this job require significant knowledge of mathematical processes which are more complex than the basic operations?
  • does this job call for knowledge of and the ability to use abstract mathematical concepts and formulae?

Learning and thinking skills

  • does this job require significant analytical and abstract thinking ability?
  • does this job call for the ability to think quickly or creatively?
  • is speed of learning more important than efficiency of task completion?
  • is the work environment such that a distractible person will have significant difficulties with focusing?
  • is this job likely to present frequent changes or novel situations which will require significant adaptability on the part of the employee?
  • does this job allow for frequent refreshers in skill development?
  • can the training period for this job be extended to allow for a person who takes longer than usual to acquire mastery of certain skills, but who, once he has reached mastery level, can work as effectively as anyone else?


  • does this job call for significant memorization of facts, sequences or other information?
  • is there any way of ensuring that the information does not have to be memorized?
  • Organizational skills
  • does this job call for significant independent, unsupervised or undirected work?
  • does this job require the employee to identify new and creative ways of carrying out tasks?
  • does this job call for good time management?
  • does this job involve the integration of information from several different sources?
  • does this job call for the ability to juggle several tasks simultaneously?
  • does this job include a requirement for setting individual priorities?
  • Speaking
  • does this job involve regular tasks relating to meeting and speaking to individuals or groups of people?
  • would a person who, when stressed, may mix up words or mispronounce them have problems with this job?

Learning style

in training for this job should the employee be someone who learns best by:

  • hearing things said,
  • reading things,
  • writing things down,
  • saying them aloud,
  • doing things

While using this process will not solve all potential problems for employers, it can assist in finding a better match between the employee’s strengths and the requirements of the job under consideration. It is likely that these questions will assist in the hiring process of all employees, not just those who have learning disabilities.