LDs and Employment: The World is Your Oyster

Posted June 20, 2016

Learning Differences

During my time as a special needs tutor, one of my duties was to accompany a dyslexic student into her English class while she studied for her high school diploma, enabling her to focus on listening to the tutor whilst I took notes for later reference. Imagine my surprise, however, when the English tutor took me to one side and told me that she too was dyslexic.

Like many people who have dyslexia and other learning disabilities (LDs), the tutor had over the years developed strategies for coping. As she told me later over a cup of (really bad) college canteen coffee after the lesson, she had decided while she was still at school to never attempt to hide or in any way deny that she had a learning difficulty.

This transparency enabled her to obtain the help and support she needed, both whilst still in education and afterwards in the workplace.

What Is a Learning Disability?

A learning disability - or learning difference, which is now considered a more updated term to use - is a neurological condition which affects how an individual processes information. Those with LDs see, hear, understand and react to things in a different way to most of the rest of the population. There is still a common misapprehension that this in some way equates to a lower than average IQ; on the contrary, however, people with LDs often have a normal to above-average level of intelligence.

Learning differences manifest themselves in a wide variety of ways. People with LDs can experience problems with reading, writing and spelling (dyslexia), or with math (dyscalculia). They can struggle with organization and with logical reasoning; they may have impaired spatial awareness or undeveloped fine motor skills (dyspraxia). Concentration can be a problem, limiting the time for which they can remain focused; similarly, memory functions - both short and long-term - can be impaired. For people on the autistic spectrum, social cues are often hard to comprehend, so they experience difficulties with social skills such as relating to and interacting with others.

Unlike the usual problems which many of us experience (I always struggled with algebra until a particularly imaginative teacher found a way of explaining it to me), LDs cannot be outgrown or "cured". Instead, people learn coping strategies, finding ways to manage their symptoms in their everyday lives.

Learning Disabilities

Children With LDs Have Ambitions Too!

My new English tutor friend (let's call her Jane) told me that one of the main challenges which faces people with LDs is overcoming the prejudices and expectations of others. She says that whereas people would ask her elder sister, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" they seldom put the same question to her. Instead, she found that people would say things like: "What do you think you'll be able to do when you leave school?" The implication being that she would struggle to achieve anything outside of academia with her ‘condition.’

Low self-esteem is cited as one of the chief problems which people with LDs experience. The good news is that, whereas not too many years ago children with learning difficulties were often dismissed as lazy or stubborn (the assumption being that all they had to do to keep up with their peers was pay attention), nowadays, the varying degrees of learning difficulties are recognized, and interventions put into place to give those with LDs the same opportunities and chances of success as everyone else.

It's What You CAN Do That Counts

So - how can those with LDs be helped to achieve their full potential in the workplace? Under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (amended 2008, finalized 2011), adults with learning differences are entitled to modifications both when applying for a job, and in the workplace itself, to help them succeed. These are described as "reasonable accommodations", which the Act explains as a "change or adjustment to a job, the work environment, or the way things usually are done" so that people with LDs are able to focus on what they can do, rather than being restricted by what they can't.

Thus an applicant can apply for a job, or an employee can perform the functions of their role, on an equal footing with others. Types of "accommodations" made could be a simplified job application process, the provision of a quieter work space free from noisy distractions, or access to specialized computer programs.

My college encouraged Jane to experiment with several such programs, both for her own benefit and for that of students with a similar condition. This has led to the college providing access to a stand-alone spell-checker for dyslexia which overcomes the problem of homophones by showing easily confusable words (such as there, their and they're) in sample sentences, making it easier to distinguish which one is correct.

Jane has also found a clever way of using her learning difficulty to help her students learn. She asks them to point out whenever she misspells a word when writing on the whiteboard or giving a presentation, praising them when they do so. In this way those students who haven't spotted the error learn the correct spelling, whilst those who noticed it gain a sense of achievement.

Dare To Be Different

The ability to learn to think outside the often rigidly defined conventions of the 9-5 working world is often what makes people with LDs excellent employees, with the potential to rise high in the ranks due to the fact that they tend to have the imagination to come up with innovative solutions to problems, paired with an above-average determination to succeed.

Take the example of Dr. Toby Cosgrove, CEO and President of the Cleveland Clinic. When asked to deliver a lecture, he responds to the question, "What is the title of your talk?" with the attention-grabbing announcement, "Today, I'm going to talk about the "F" word." He enjoys the look of surprise on his listeners' faces before clarifying his title - talking about Failure, which is what most dyslexics experience before any eventual success comes their way.

Undiagnosed until later in life, Dr. Cosgrove struggled to obtain C and D grades at school. But nevertheless he applied to 13 medical schools and was accepted by just one, the University of Virginia School of Medicine. During his residency he was told that he didn't "have what it takes" to pursue his chosen specialty, cardiac surgery, but his determination and strong work ethic led to him eventually becoming a world-renowned cardiologist, as well as a widely-respected philanthropist.

Learning Disabilities

Follow Your Heart

Of course, not everyone can - or would want to - become a world-famous heart surgeon. The Campaign for Disability Employment (CDE) promotes positive employment outcomes for people with LDs by encouraging employers to recognize both the talent and the value which they bring to America's workplaces and to the economy. It emphasizes that everyone has a right to be judged on their abilities, not excluded by their disabilities.

You may well have seen the public service announcement entitled "Who I Am", which debuted at the White House in 2014 and has now been aired over 46,000 times nationwide on TV stations and cable outlets. It featured nine ordinary people with a wide range of disabilities, who - as do we all, of course - define themselves by the total sum of their various roles in life, not simply by their disability. This includes having the determination and drive to work in jobs which they love.

Jane, my tutor friend, says that she was encouraged by her own special needs tutor to forget about what she could and could not do and instead think about what she loved doing. Despite struggling with reading, she loved literature, and would listen to audio-books whilst following the text in hard copy. This passion, plus her own determination not to be held back by her LD, drove her to apply to teacher training college, which eventually led to her becoming a tutor herself.

Understand Your Strengths

Every one of us has unique talents and individual strengths which make us different to everyone else around us. The challenge for us all is to recognize what these are, and to use them as a foundation upon which to build. So just find something you love doing, and take it from there.

Maybe you're good at art or music, at math or computing. Perhaps you love sport, or gardening, or animals. You might be funny (stand-up comedian, anyone?), or enjoy the practical challenges of making your own clothes or mending your own car. Maybe you're an excellent listener, or love to inspire others with your passions, as Jane does with her love of literature.

For those of us with a learning difference, the support is out there to enable us to follow our dreams as far as is possible. But LD or no LD, we must all learn to have high expectations of ourselves. And what is just as important, never to have low expectations of, or make assumptions about, other people.

Jocelyn Hanrath is an Olympic-track soccer goalie and aspiring coach. She's also the 2016 winner of the Allegra Ford Thomas Scholarship, awarded to a graduating high school senior with a documented learning disability. She says that she's learned to "never judge anyone because I don't know what parts of his or her life may be hard, (because) you can't always see a disability."

Wise words from a teenager which we'd all do well to take to heart.

Learning Disabilities


Kate Rhodes is a passionate scholar and advocate of happiness, both at home and in one's career. After working for over a decade in education, including adult literacy and special needs tutoring, she now divides her time between blogging on the subject of careers and work/life balance, and finding her own happiness curled up at home with a good book, her dog and a mug of tea. Her idea of true happiness is waking up one day to find that every apostrophe in the world is finally in its rightful place.

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