Author: Catherine M. Smith
Source: Reprinted with permission from LDAC’s newsletter National.

First, the good news. Most people who have learning disabilities heave a sigh of relief when school days are finally behind them and get on with satisfying, successful lives. They find a niche where they can fit into the workforce, matching their skills and abilities to the right job. Many are college and university graduates, and take their places confidently and comfortably in their chosen fields.

Now, the less good news. Many people who have learning disabilities struggle to get appropriate training or education, struggle to find jobs, struggle to get accommodations in the workplace, or get jobs only to lose them within a short time. There are several possible reasons for this: lack of fit between skills and job requirements; social skills difficulties; systemic barriers resulting in lack of appropriate accommodations; and difficulty handling the learning experiences inherent in any job in today’s world.

Fit, between skills and jobs is a primary ingredient for success. This is true for everyone. For individuals who have learning disabilities it means that they must have a clear understanding of their specific learning disabilities and understand when and how they are likely to manifest. Many individuals leave high school with only the vaguest general idea of what their deficit areas are, and little idea of how those will impact on various career possibilities. For example, I have worked with an individual who struggled mightily to get through law school. She finally succeeded. However, her main area of difficulty was auditory processing deficits. Her score on a standardized test placed her well below the 16 th percentile. This is a major handicap for a lawyer whose job is to process accurately and remember large amounts of information. When I tried to reach her at her business number a year or so after her graduation, it was out of service. I do not know that she was not able to make it as a lawyer, but it would surprise me greatly if she did. On the other hand, I worked with a young man at university who had great difficulties with writing. He was in an applied program of video production in which his strengths were utilized and the need for writing was minimal. This represents a good “fit” between strengths and job requirements. He had all the part-time work he could handle in his field and would likely have no difficulty achieving success as a full-time worker.

Some individuals with learning disabilities have social skills deficits. They have difficulty reading social situations, understanding the non-verbal aspects of communication (tone of voice; pace of delivery; non-word vocalic such as “um, ah, oh”; body position and gestures; facial expressions), using eye contact appropriately, listening, asking for help, explaining a problem, accepting ‘no’ for an answer, and turn-taking in conversations. The Conference Board of Canada has published a leaflet called Employability Skills Profile . It lists the general skills that all employers look for and value in all employees. A look at this list of Critical Skills Required for the Workforce makes it clear why individuals with social skills deficits have difficulty succeeding in the workplace even if they have the requisite hard job skills. The list of ‘critical skills’ includes the abilities to: listen to understand and learn; understand and contribute to the organization’s goals; understand and work with the culture of the group; plan and make decisions with others and support the outcome; respect the thoughts and opinions of others in the group; exercise “give and take” to achieve group results; seek a team approach as appropriate; and lead when appropriate, mobilizing the group for high performance. A survey of employers conducted by the Ontario Ministry of Labour revealed that they cite ‘lack of social skills’ as the main reason for termination of employment. This makes social skills deficits a serious issue for people with learning disabilities who have this particular deficit.

Individuals who have social skills deficits can learn to perform many of the skills mentioned as essential. They do not learn automatically, but they need to have each skill made explicit, have the skill demonstrated, and practice the skill in a supportive environment receiving corrective feedback. They often need ongoing ‘remediation’ to help them apply the skills they have learned when they are actually in the workplace. Social skills training is best done in small groups where students can help each other as they are learning under the guidance of a trained facilitator.

Even those who have good job skills and good social skills may run into systemic barriers. This refers to practices or attitudes within the workplace that work to prevent individuals from achieving success. Such practices or attitudes preclude implementation of accommodations that would enable people to do their work effectively. Our Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, and associated Human Rights Acts dictate that accommodations must be provided to individuals with disabilities. In order to refuse a job to, or let go, a person for lack of ability to do the job, the employer first must make sure the individual cannot do the job even with appropriate accommodations . Accommodations include such things as assistive technology (voice interactive software), job restructuring (if there is one minor aspect of the job that cannot be performed even with accommodations, giving that part of the job to another individual in exchange for something the person can do), providing written instructions for workers with memory problems; and allowing extra time for new skills required for the job to be learned. A recent case that went to trial involved an individual who was denied a promotion because it took her longer to achieve a second-language proficiency requirement. After many years, the individual won her case. But how many people are there who do not have the time, motivation, or resources to fight such a battle, and therefore simply accept the discrimination?

Paul Gerber and his colleagues who have spent years researching adults with learning disabilities, have looked at the positive side of employment by interviewing many highly and moderately successful adults with learning disabilities. They concluded that the overriding issue mitigating for success was the quest by individuals to gain control over their lives. Control was pursued through two sets of themes: internal decisions and external manifestations.

The internal decisions included having the desire to succeed, being goal-driven, and having reframed how learning disabilities was thought about. Having the desire to succeed is quite straight forward. Everyone I have ever met has that desire. It becomes trickier when self-efficacy enters the picture. Self-efficacy refers to one’s belief that one’s own efforts have a direct impact on outcomes. Many people with learning disabilities do not believe that what they do makes any difference…they will either succeed or not, depending on luck, their teacher, their boss, or other factors apart from their own effort. Those who succeed want to succeed and believe that what they do makes the difference. Therefore they are more motivated to take action and persevere. At some point, adults with learning disabilities who achieve success decide to take control over their own lives and make things happen by taking direct action.

All of the successful adults interviewed by Gerber and his colleagues routinely set goals, both long-term and short-term. It is important that the goals be realistic, that is, achievable. Goals that are too easy are not meaningful as motivators. Goals that are unrealistic in light of the individual’s strengths and weaknesses are not likely reachable and so serve to de-motivate rather than motivate. But clear, achievable goals, accompanied by a plan of action, serve to propel individuals toward success. Strategic thinking becomes important if goal-setting is to work. Success or failure to reach goals needs to be accompanied by reflection about why the individual succeeded or not, and if not, what other strategy could be tried. This type of strategic thinking does not come naturally to many individuals with learning disabilities. Deborah Butler has developed a method to help college students learn to think strategically by repeatedly leading them through the cycle of goal-setting, plan development, plan implementation, and reflection.

The third internal decision identified by Gerber was reframing . That is the process of recognizing and accepting the impact of the learning disabilities and accepting and valuing oneself, including the learning disabilities. It means making friends with one’s learning disabilities, and approaching life with a positive attitude. Such acceptance brings with it the ability and willingness to discuss one’s learning disabilities with others when and as appropriate, without shame or guilt. In order to be able to do so, individuals need to truly understand their own strengths and weaknesses so they can be dealt with realistically when making career decisions or discussing the need for accommodations. The final stage in the reframing process is action : taking direct action toward goal achievement.

Having made these internal decisions, successful individuals then exhibit behaviours that are consistent with those decisions. They select jobs or careers which fit well with their abilities and disabilities, persist in their efforts to achieve success, and become creative in developing or learning new strategies to help them get around their areas of difficulty. To do this, many develop a solid network of friends, supporters, mentors, and learning experiences/resources that may be called upon when required. Learning how to make effective use of technology would fall into this category. Developing the ability and willingness to seek out and accept support is key.

A very pragmatic question often arises for individuals with learning disabilities. “When should I disclose to an employer that I have learning disabilities?” There is no stock answer to this question. If the individual’s learning disabilities are not expected to be an issue in the particular job, there is no need to disclose. For example, a person may have arthritis, diabetes, or depression. If the condition is under control and not likely to surface as a barrier to that individual’s effective job performance, then it is a non-issue and does not need to be disclosed. If, however, the condition is not well controlled and is likely to interfere with the individual’s ability to carry out all aspects of the job effectively, then the condition needs to be disclosed and adaptations identified to deal with the issues. The same is true for learning disabilities. The more one has chosen work that provides a good fit with individual strengths and weaknesses, the less likely it is to be an issue. If it is an issue, it needs to be disclosed before work commences, but after the job offer has been made. This allows the individual to identify strategies and adaptations which will permit effective job completion, or allows the employee and employer to work together to find workable solutions. The bottom line always must be that the employee can perform the essential elements of the job with adaptations. If the essential elements of the job cannot be performed, even with adaptations, there is no ‘fit’, and the employer needs to find another person who can do the job. The potential employee needs to find work or a job where there is a fit. Happily, recent court decisions have made it clear that the onus is on employers to prove that every avenue has been tried to make jobs work for individuals with learning disabilities before refusing to hire or promote, or terminating employment.

In school, students with learning disabilities vary greatly in their need for support. Some need a special school, some a special class, some resource support, and some cope nicely without any special supports. In the workplace, the same is true for adults. Some require significant rehabilitation programs to prepare them for success in the workplace. Such a program could include assessment, remediation, career assessment and counselling, skills training with proper adaptations, on-the-job training, unpaid work placement with monitoring, coaching, or counselling, and social skills training. Some require access to education and training with adaptations provided. Some only need employers willing to provide adaptations in the workplace. And some perform with no special supports. Hopefully this article offers guidance to help you, or your loved one, make decisions about what, if anything, is needed.

In this article, the term learning disabilities includes attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.