Author: Carter Hammett

“Having LD and ADHD allows you to create. I did lots of research on famous people with LD. What binds most is that they have to think of other ways of exploring their path. Teachers are a big influence as well, both positive and negative. One in high school said I’d never finish college. I think people gave me ammunition to get through things.”

-David, 31, Photographer

So it’s a beautiful summer day and you’re on lunch break, walking down the street talking to a friend. All around you, the streets are teaming with life. There are cars and busloads of whooping tourists. You cross the street to bypass the construction that blocks your path. Merchants and artisans stand on the corner, loudly hawking jewelry, hotdogs, clothing. Off in the distance, you hear an ambulance blaring its sirens, and periodically, a homeless person steps in front of you, hand outstretched. Suddenly, a pigeon swoops out of nowhere to attack the crumb dropped from your sandwich.

Still, with all of these distractions, you have been able to remain engaged in your conversation. You are focused and undeterred as you try to make your point. Imagine, however, what it would be like to be unable to filter out the amount of data that bombards you. The end result would be information overload, akin to living in a sonic whirlwind. Now, imagine living in that perpetual state, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sound overwhelming? The world of some with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) might be comparable to this chaos.

ADHD is, as Toronto neuropsychologist Dr. Douglas J. Salmon Jr. describes, “ A neuro-cognitive disorder characterized by a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity which is more frequent and severe than that experienced by others of the same developmental stage.” Thought to affect two-to-four percent of the population, there are three types of ADHD: Primarily Inattentive Type, Primarily Impulsive Type and Combined.

ADHD affects the frontal lobes, the part of the brain responsible for targeting, integrating and synthesizing data received from other brain areas. The frontal lobes also play a vital role in filtering out external distractions and irrelevant information.

When speaking with people about learning disabilities, often you will hear someone say some variation of, “Oh yeah. I know someone with learning disabilities…my friend’s brother has ADHD.”

It is not surprising that people often confuse LD and ADHD. Frequently the two conditions co-exist, and exhibit similar characteristics. Furthermore, an estimated 80 per cent of all persons living with ADHD as the primary barrier in their lives, also live with some form of learning disability. Until recently, ADHD had been more frequently diagnosed in men. It is estimated that up to 70 per cent of young offenders are living with ADHD. In women, ADHD may alternatively manifest itself as behaviour that appears “spacey” or daydream-like in nature. In essence, they are “victims of their own wiring.”

Other characteristics that present in diagnosed ADHD cases can include: problems reported in going through established challenges or following proper procedures; demonstration of low tolerance for frustration; sense of insecurity; frequent mood swings; poor self-esteem; frequent finger drumming or feet tapping and/or pacing; intolerance for stress; weak time management skills; difficulty enjoying work; often feeling disappointed or discouraged; longstanding unhappiness; and often, feelings of being unable to reach potential. In addition to learning disabilities, ADHD can also co-exist with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other conditions.

Like many persons with learning disabilities, workers with ADHD often remain un-or-under-employed. Planning, memory, teamwork, organization are great demands placed on us in the workplace, and many of these traits, which can often be accommodated, remain problematic for this population. Employees with ADHD seeking counseling represent the “high end” of the ADD continuum, while many remain undiagnosed or unaware of the existence of their condition; another by-product of living with an invisible disability. Further complicating these factors is the prejudice, unintended or not, on the part of some employers, who resist hiring someone with a condition they do not understand.

Kathleen Nadeau, editor of A Comprehensive Guide to Attention Deficit Disorder in Adults (1994) has identified a number of “crisis points” she suggests may be “typical” in the work lives of adults with ADHD. These include the following situations:

  • A new position requiring tracking, prioritization, multitasking and rapid processing of detailed paperwork
  • A promotion requiring supervision and management of others
  • An organization is taken over by a new management team that is inflexible and detail-oriented
  • Supervision which is critical, detail oriented and inflexible

The common theme running throughout these situations appears to be an “overload” reaction for the ADHD employee, where competencies in planning, organization, time management, etc. exceed the worker’s ability to cope.

But, it is important to realize the news is not all bad. Many persons with ADHD, including Benjamin Franklin, Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein, have gone on to become successful, and some even flourish in their positions. As Kathleen Nadeau, states, “because of the variety of ways ADHD manifests, it is impossible to make general statements about their positive traits. However, some make excellent salespeople, promoters and lobbyists due to social skills and boundless energy. Others are blessed with an endless flow of creative ideas and associations which make them marvelous brainstormers and catalysts. Many hyperactive adults use their enthusiasm effectively in entrepreneurial activities. Although planning and long-term follow-through tend to be difficult for many ADHD adults, some are able to respond superbly to situations calling for crisis intervention or immediate problem solving.”

Additionally, the energy exhibited by some with ADHD may allow them to tackle shift work quite well.


“ I think for employers, it’s a matter of taking the blinders off. I don’t let my ADHD cloud my judgment. I’d rather have “X” challenge because it personalizes the situation, and says the person is not the problem.”

-Natasha, 31, ESL Instructor/Tutor

Like LD, ADHD can be accommodated in ways that enhance a worker’s performance and contribute to the overall productivity of the workplace. This includes:

  • Providing a non-distracting work space (both visually and auditorally)
  • Allowing opportunities to work from home or through telecommuting
  • Avoiding multitasking, frequent interruptions in work, and distractions that can be heard or seen, including working close to other people
  • Video or audiotape to assist with auditory memory problems
  • Checklists
  • Flexible work hours. Allowing the individual to arrive early, work late or on weekends can enable a worker with ADHD to be more productive, if they are easily distracted.
  • Written instruction/communication
  • Removal of nonessential duties
  • Job restructuring
  • More structure and deadlines. Two fifteen-minute meetings a week can help the employee stay on track.
  • One co-worker/mentor through whom all information and instructions flow. This process helps focus the employee and allows them to interface with only one person
  • Avoiding fast-paced work sites (e.g. assembly-lines, the need to meet quotas, frequent deadline pressures) and fast-paced or dangerous machinery
  • Avoiding high stress occupations and dangerous work environments
  • Avoiding unstructured work, without regular routine/work activities
  • Remediation (tutoring training, mentoring) to help with language, vision or speech therapy in areas of deficit, or to promote workplace literacy training.
  • Reassignment to a vacant, “better fit” position within the same company at the same level of pay as position first hired for
  • Additional clerical support
  • Job maintenance portfolios
  • More frequent performance appraisals


The last decade has seen the rise of a relatively new form of assistance for workers with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: The ADHD Coach.

ADHD Coaches help employees with ADHD develop compensatory strategies, which they can integrate into their daily work patterns. ADHD Coaches act as mentors and catalysts, and provide ADHD employees with structure and work to enhance existing competencies to ensure a “good fit” with the workers’ career choice. Sometimes, EAP or insurance programs cover coaches. They can be an invaluable source of support and structure to the worker with ADHD.

Kathleen Nadeau reports on a 1992 study conducted of successful adults with LD to learn about shared traits and conditions that contributed to their achievements. All shared a desire to succeed, exhaustive determination, a need to control their own destiny and an ability to reframe their learning disabilities into something more positive. Also common was the fact that most had a mentor and a support network. These ingredients are also essential contributors to the achievements of the worker with ADHD.

While there is no magic ingredient that will guarantee the success of this particular community in the workplace, a combination of support, mentoring, accommodations and patience, have proven that persons with ADHD can make meaningful contributions towards enhancing diversity in the workplace, and perform successfully on the job.