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Learning Disabilities at Work

How to Get What You Need

Learning Disabilities at Work

Every educator in America knows about learning disabilities. The result: Students with dyslexia, organizational problems, attention deficit disorder and similar conditions receive accommodation, such as extra time on tests, quiet rooms for studying and scribes for note taking.

These students eventually bring their learning disabilities into the workforce. According to the National Institute for Literacy, up to 20 percent of the US population may be affected. However, because learning disabilities are hidden -- and workers aren't legally required to disclose them -- employers may misunderstand or even be unaware of these disabilities.

If they find out, supervisors may downplay the disability or the employee's ability to function adequately. The problem, says Suzanne Gosden Kitchen, human factors consultant at the Job Accommodation Network, is not the disability itself; it's others' reaction to it.

That leaves workers with learning disabilities to decide how to manage at work -- struggle in secrecy or seek employer support through disclosure?

Deciding When to Disclose a Learning Disability

"The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled that an individual can disclose a disability at any time, from the first day of application to the day of termination," Kitchen says. "But I don't advise disclosing at the beginning. You don't have to, and it's illegal to ask."

Online information center LdPride cites advantages and disadvantages to disclosing a learning disability early in the job application process. If an employer has only limited knowledge of learning disabilities, it may color how he perceives you. And the subject may overtake the rest of your interview.

But disclosing early allows you to judge how understanding a potential employer would be as well as the level of accommodation you'd receive. At the same time, you can assuage any doubts about your ability to perform the job, particularly if you provide concrete examples of past successes. And not having to hide a learning disability may help you sell yourself more effectively.

If the job application involves a test, ask for what you need, such as extra time, a private room, the test read aloud or a scribe to write your answers, Kitchen says. Those undecided about whether they should disclose a learning disability should find out when the test will be given again. If you can retake it next week, you may want to try without disclosure. But you'll probably want to ask for accommodation if the test is given less frequently.

A stigma still surrounds learning disabilities, Kitchen says. "After high school, a lot of people don't want to tell anyone ever again," she says. "That's too bad. If you don't tell, you might not get the accommodation you need."

Asking for Accommodations

Your employer may be surprised to learn how simple and inexpensive many accommodations are. Workers with learning disabilities may be helped by color-coded labels or diagrams and flow charts. Workers with an auditory processing disorder may simply need to receive instructions in writing, while those who are dyslexic may need verbal direction. Such workers may be most productive in a private office.

Some people with learning disabilities have trouble organizing both their time and their time-saving devices. A possible solution is a watch-like hybrid of a clock and PDA. Other high tech, low-cost electronic aids include voice output machines, graphic organizers for creating and writing documents, screen-reading and voice-recognition software, talking calculators, large-display screens, electronic schedulers and white-noise machines.

Coworkers should know about accommodations only if they are directly involved in providing them, Kitchen says. Examples would be if someone were asked to check a colleague's written work before it was submitted or to read him instructions out loud. Kitchen sees no reason to tell clients or customers beyond trying to establish a bond with someone with a similar disability.

Whenever you disclose your learning disability, you must first believe it is not an obstacle to success. According to SchwabLearning.org, adults repeatedly say that "once they have accepted their learning disability and its challenges, they were ‘freed up' to take on the many demands of the workplace."


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