Dis-engaged or Dis-ability? Accommodating Learning Disabilities in the Workplace

By Catherine Laird, CHRP

Would you hire Agatha Christie, Tom Cruise, Alexander Graham Bell, Walt Disney, Cher or Steven Spielberg?

If you answered, “It depends….for which job?” you would be right. Diversity is hiring the right person for the right job; hiring clones of ourselves does not accomplish diversification and only brings more people on the team with the same limitations. Creativity, commitment, determination, leadership, engagement, innovation, motivation and team work: all are benefits of diversity that can be reaped from hiring ‘outside the box.’

All of the people listed above are intelligent and highly successful and have publicly announced that they struggle with a learning disability (LD).

Not a Developmental Disability
A learning disability should not be confused with a developmental disability as people with learning disabilities have average or above average intelligence. Incidence is often reported as one in 10, although many are not diagnosed, and while there are varied statistics on gender predisposition, boys are more often diagnosed.

People with LD usually have low grades in academia due to a high focus on one teaching style.  With the right accommodations people with LD can be solid employees with a good work ethic and sensitivity towards others due to their own need to work harder, more efficiently and be judged by their personalities and attitudes rather than their academic achievement.

Different Types of Learning Disabilities
There is more than one type of LD and there can be combinations:

  • Dyslexia—difficulty reading
  • Dyscalculia—difficulty with math (Quick, what is 9X8?)
  • Dysgraphia—difficulty with writing (Have you read some recent doctor’s reports?)
  • Dyspraxia (Sensory Integration Disorder)—difficulty with fine motor skills
  • Dysphasia/Aphasia—difficulty with language
  • Auditory Processing Disorder—difficulty hearing differences between sounds
  • Visual Processing Disorder—difficulty interpreting visual information

Learning disabilities don’t go away when the person leaves school and can be more pronounced when people are tired/distracted or who are working on a new project/new team. Most people with learning disabilities have had them all their life and have learned to cope or have developed strategies to circumvent the difficulties that they experience. As with the famous people at the start of this piece, all can be a welcome addition to a team, company and shared success.

Not a Lack of Intelligence
Many people, even teachers and professors, equate learning disabilities with a lack of intelligence. This is untrue. People with LD have a hidden disability and, depending on the type of LD, it affects how they learn, process, retain information and perform certain tasks. However, we all have unique talents that can contribute to the overall performance of the team.

One particularly frustrating experience comes to mind. Someone on my team had volunteered to do a number of tasks; they continued to drop the ball, were slow to respond, did it and then lost it—and at the last minute said they did not have time to do it before the deadline. While my immediate reaction was that this was a time management problem, I wondered if it could be a LD?

Another team member finished the task and said “there are ‘ideas people’ and there are ‘doer people’” – this was a true and interesting observation, however this particular project required the actual ‘doing’ part – the ideas were fairly easy. Other projects require the ‘ideas’ part while the implementation is actually quite easy. Matching those projects types to people types would have been a great idea at that the time.

Accommodating Ongoing Success
Many more people with learning disabilities are graduating from high school than in the past, and subsequently from university with diplomas and degrees. They are more than capable and may have received accommodations in the academic world in certain areas to ensure their success. Now we have to carry those accommodations into the work world.

As we eliminate some of the basic entry level jobs like bagging groceries, pumping gas, reception and filing, we are forcing some people into jobs that are less “hands on” and may be less reactive, thereby requiring planning, organization and proactivity. These may not be natural skills for people who learn differently.

Be Curious
If there are areas of weakness observed in an employee—or things not being done properly—Be curious. Ask if they know why, if they have had difficulties like this in school or if they were diagnosed with a learning disability. Many have never been diagnosed and some have been recommended to be diagnosed but have refused. Then there are some who are very aware of their situation, but may not have the insight as to what they need to be adequately accommodated.

Caution—don’t try to diagnose them yourself. Explain the areas that you see as functional areas that need to be improved or areas where they are underperforming. Offer to make accommodations that may be necessary. If you have access to an EAP program or an extended health program where they can go for an assessment, this is a great start. A full psycho-vocational test can be performed and a simple recommendation sheet for accommodations and success in the workplace can be produced. A diagnosis is not required for the workplace—this can lead to labeling.

And remember, if we all needed to run a 10K race in less than an hour or create a sculpture in order to graduate, many of us may not have graduated.

Anchoring Diversity and Accommodation
Creating solid ground upon which to develop an organizational respect and regard for the benefits of diversity in the workplace is key. Here are a pair of short templates to set the foundation:

Commitment to Inclusiveness and Diversity: Make a Statement (Cultural Awareness)
{Insert Company name} is committed to promoting, providing and protecting a positive and safe learning and working environment for all its employees. {Insert work unit} is committed to inclusiveness and to a welcoming, friendly learning and working environment. We condemn sexism, ageism, racism, ethnocentrism, homophobia and inappropriate behaviour toward people living with a disability.

Back it Up (Accommodations)
Employees with diverse learning styles and needs are welcome at {insert company name} if you have a disability/health consideration that may require accommodations, please feel free to approach your manager or HR specialist as soon as possible. The HR specialist is available by appointment to assess specific needs, provide referrals and arrange appropriate accommodations. The sooner you let us know your needs the quicker we can assist you in achieving your maximum job performance.

Read Part Two: Work Smarter, not Harder – Solutions for Accommodating Learning Disabilities in the Workplace

Catherine Laird, BHSc, CFP, CHRP wants to live in a world filled with adventure, travel and dark chocolate.  As a health, finance and HR professional with more than 20 years of experience, Catherine is a consultant who specializes in risk management, advocacy and education for seniors & people living with disabilities. When she’s not volunteering, teaching courses to help small business owners,  families and caregivers navigate “the systems”  you can find her preserving or cooking up delicious treats from her ‘deer-free’ garden, hiking the Camino or dreaming up another upcycling home renovation. Her seminars and articles are focused on understanding perplexing situations and applying options to plan for the future.


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