Work Smarter, Not Harder: Solutions for Accommodating Learning Disabilities in the Workplace


By Catherine Laird, CHRP

Read Part One, Dis-engaged or Dis-ability: The Need to Accommodate Learning Disabilities in the Workplace.

Now that we have established how to recognize a potential learning disability (LD) in the workplace, we can work on accommodations.

As LDs are usually genetic or resulting from brain injury, those affected are not going to “outgrow it” or “get better at it.” This is akin to someone who is born with or develops a hearing or vision loss; they too require accommodations (eyeglasses, braille or hearing aids) to level the playing field.

Affordable LD Accommodations Abound
Accommodations need not be expensive and with current technology are well within reach; for larger organizations a simple call to the IT Department may be all that is needed. In some cases, the employee may need access to a calculator or spell check common on all computers. Simple built in settings—such as spellcheck on all emails before sending can be set up quickly by an HR or IT specialist. If they are not at a desk, these items still come as handheld devices.

For more complex writing tasks, there is voice-activated software—the most common being Dragon Naturally Speaking ® which comes in different versions including Home, Premium, Professional, Legal or Medical. This software is used by many professionals including doctors, allowing them to dictate directly into their computer and have the computer software perform the function of a transcriptionist in 38 languages. The software is trained to listen to your voice alone and yes—it even works for a Mac!

A Diversity of Learning Styles
If we have always learned with, worked with or lived with people who have one type of learning ability – we may not understand when people doodle on their notes while listening, seem distracted, or appear to be uninterested. This is where “true” collaborative working teams have an advantage in the workplace.

Remember from Part One of this article that there are many different types and combinations of LD and that each one can present in different ways, requiring personalized accommodations. After all, someone with a hearing loss will not be helped with corrective lenses.

One more disability that is seen separately or in combination with LD is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). There are three types: predominantly hyperactive, predominantly inattentive or the combined type.

ADHD is easily treated but is sometimes not diagnosed and/or not recognized as a true disability – but may require accommodations such as a quiet or private office space to work free of distractions or to use voice activated software, smaller more frequent breaks, screen-reading software and/or oral vs. written instructions.

Tailor Communications and Feedback
Thinking flexibly helps see past short term obstacles to long term gains. If your probationary policy for new employees is three months, consider that a person with a LD may warrant an extension to six months to more accurately assess and accommodate their abilities in the new position.

Feedback need to be communicated in a style appropriate for each individual’s LD subtype and, at a minimum, include the provision of:

  • specific skill instruction;
  • accommodations;
  • compensatory strategies; and
  • self-advocacy skills.

Remembering that we all differ in our own learning styles is a good way to widen the lens of understanding others. To break it down: 65 per cent of us are visual learners, 30 per cent are auditory learners and only five per cent of us are kinaesthetic learners whereby we learn by doing or being involved.

Listen for cues as to which type of learner/communicator they are:

  • “Watch this” / “Let me try this (kinesthetic);
  • “Look at this” / “Show me how to do it” (visual); or
  • “Listen to this / “Tell me what to do” (auditory).

Focus Job Description on Abilities
Review the job description to ensure that the tasks are within their abilities and not focussed on their disabilities:

  • oral language (e.g. listening, speaking, understanding);
  • reading (e.g. decoding, phonetic knowledge, word recognition, comprehension);
  • written language (e.g. spelling and written expression); and
  • mathematics (e.g. computation, problem solving).

Someone with a hearing loss may not be suited to a dispatch operator position requiring excellent listening skills and accuracy, but prove invaluable in an alternate role.

buiLD Performance Strategies for Success
Supporting the success of any employee with performance strategies can have even greater return with employees with a LD. Whether these include prompts at their desk or reminders on their computer/calendar, having a toolkit of checklists, procedure manuals, multiplication tables serves all employees.

Performance strategies to consider with learning disabilities in mind might include:

  • IT to set up computer;
  • Systems or time reminders for tasks that are more tedious like filing, sorting, prioritizing;
  • colour-coded files rather than labels;
  • an alphabet list on the filing cabinet;
  • an instruction manual on how to set up “out of office” or other ‘intuititve’ tasks; and
  • extra time, spell check, and voice recognition software .

A Responsibility to Accommodate
Responsibilities of the employer regarding employees with a learning disability are much the same as with all disabilities, including the need to:

  • Keep all information about the employee’s disability confidential as per FOIPPA;
  • Make a policy regarding retention (and destruction) of medical information and subsequent accommodations once an employee is no longer with the company. This should not form part of the employment record and has nothing to do with their job performance whether they needed to be accommodated or not;
  • Assign one person in HR who has knowledge in this area to specialize;
  • Educate managers and supervisors on legislation regarding accommodations; and
  • Provide accommodation up to the point of undue hardship.

Accommodating Fresh Futures
This is an introduction to some of the different types of LD and learning styles and some of the support and accommodations that we can implement to ensure that our teams are effective and productive – the ultimate goal for all organizations.

We do not all have to be experts at every facet of our job description; it is usually preferred to have certain members of the team who specialize in areas and respect and support each others’ strengths and contributions. Accommodating any type of disability usually involves reorganizing the team and adapting. When this is done in a positive light, everyone wins—especially you as a leader.

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.

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 0 / 5. Vote count: 0

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.


HR Law


Enter your email address to receive updates each Wednesday.

Privacy guaranteed. We'll never share your info.