Getting the Most out of Working With a Learning Disability

The US Department of Education reports that as many as one in five people in the United States has a learning disability, but workplaces are only beginning to maximize their potential.

Landing a great job directly after college made 22-year-old Columbia graduate Tom Reed ecstatic. It was in the industry he wanted to be in (TV production), in the city he had grown to love (New York), and it came without the hassle of the long and tiresome job search that plagued many of his fellow graduates. Still, despite the tremendous relief of being gainfully employed, Reed was faced with the anxiety attached to one vital question: should he, or should he not, tell his superiors about his learning disability?

Disclosure meant a number of different things for Reed. If he told his superiors about his affliction, described by Reed as a non-verbal processing disorder which makes sorting fragmented information especially difficult, then his bosses could possibly treat the situation as a positive and find areas where they could maximize Reed's above-average creative faculties and find ways to work around his organizational difficulties.

On the other hand, if Reed "outed himself" as a learning-disabled person, his coworkers might take this as a sign of weakness and a reason to stigmatize and mistrust him. He had already chosen not to reveal his disability during the interview process, not wanting to risk being instantly rejected before having the chance to explain the positive aspects of his condition.

"In the end I chose not to disclose," said Reed, shortly after getting off from his job at The NOCtv, an online sports and entertainment channel where he is a production assistant.

"My performance has carved out my strengths."

"It didn't feel relevant," he added. "Maybe if I were being harassed about my slow tempo, but I think Noc knows that I'm not the person you want juggling four tasks at once. It's my attention to detail that stands out."

Reed's affliction falls underneath the scope of a learning disability (LD), which is widely understood as an umbrella term for neurobiological difficulties in the brain's ability to receive, process, store, express, and respond to information.

For many learners like Reed, processing information can be especially troublesome. For example, some individuals have trouble visually perceiving and sequencing information. Others can successfully acquire such information but struggle when they're asked to relay or analyze it using speech or writing.

There are also individuals with non-verbal learning disabilities -- learners who suffer from poor motor skills and problematic visual-spatial awareness. In practice, these individuals often experience difficulty with organizational tasks and computations, while maintaining above average vocabularies, reading skills, and retention abilities.

The U.S. Department of Education reported in 2001 that as many as one out of every five people in the U.S. has a learning disability. Other government agencies, according to The Washington Post, believe that between 10 and 15 million Americans are learning disabled.

In the past century, American schools have made immense strides in educating and accommodating students with learning disabilities. Tom Reed is a testament to this progress. Starting in 8th grade, he received services like extra time to help cope with his processing disorder. Instead of scrambling to absorb information, he was able to carefully and thoroughly process it, without riddling himself with anxiety over his work speed.

Currently, the nation's special education programs devise individualized education plans (IEPs) for students with dyslexia, ADHD, and other cognitive, executive-functioning disorders. They also provide slow-processers with extra time, distribute reading aids to dyslexic students, and design academic strategies and accommodations, among other services. Unfortunately, as beneficial as these accommodations may be, they often disappear once the recipient reaches the workplace.

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Eli Epstein is a freelance journalist in New York City. His work has also appeared online in Fortune and Esquire.

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