Getting the Most out of Working With a Learning Disability

"We've made all these advances in the academic world for kids, but when they get to the working world, it all grinds to a stop. There's no method for them to identify themselves as LD" said Steve Williamson, a Queens-based attorney who suffers from dyslexia and serves as a prominent member of both Project Eye-to-Eye and The Churchill School & Center for students with disabilities.

Williamson rightly points out that learning disabilities are not just an adolescent problem; they don't simply dissipate with adulthood. While Reed felt confident enough in his own abilities and academic strategies to hide his disability from his coworkers, thousands of American workers choose to stay mum about theirs for fear of stigmatization and, possibly, termination.

"There's a stigma that exists where LD people feel if they out themselves at work, their coworkers and bosses will think they are stupid," said Marcus Soutra, Managing Director of Project Eye-to-Eye, a mentoring program that pairs learning disabled children with similarly labeled college students.

"There's a sense that you can fake or hide it, and a motto to just sit there and get your work done," he added.

Fear of stupidity is just the tip of the iceberg, according to University of Connecticut professor of Educational Psychology Joseph W. Madaus, who also directs the school's Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability. Madaus polled 500 university graduates from three different schools, and found that while 100 percent of these students disclosed their disability in college, only 55 percent did so on the job, and of that 55 percent, only 12 percent asked for workplace accommodations. Furthermore, 20 percent of the students who disclosed reported experiencing negative consequences such as lack of respect, lowered expectations or confidence from others, lost job responsibilities, and exclusion from promotion.

One promising aspect of Madaus's study, on the other hand, is the depth of accommodation and service that the American special education system has imbued challenged learners with, to the point where they no longer feel the need to disclose their disability.

"The study shows that the respondents are self-accommodating. They use strategies in the workplace that they've developed in school," said Madaus. "One of the largest reasons for non-disclosure was that the subjects said they didn't need extra accommodations any longer."

According to Marcus Soutra, responsibility for negative non-disclosure and the dearth of workplace accommodation falls largely in the lap of corporate human resources departments.

"LD is not in the HR handbook," he says. "They have a procedure for depression -- you go see this person, you take this. But with LD they're not sure how to accommodate."

To close the HR gap, Steve Williamson, together with Project Eye-to-Eye, recently approached Human Resources New York, the largest HR trade association in the state, about establishing a partnership to teach HR professionals about LD issues. New York HR president Jennifer C. Loftus quickly warmed to the idea and the two groups are presently moving towards offering a two-hour, four credit professional accreditation course for HR professionals to learn about cognitive disabilities.

With elementary and middle school students, Soutra emphasizes building "ramps," strategies for learning disabled students to use for success in the classroom. He sees no reason why these "ramps" can't be implemented in the workplace, especially with disability protection laws in place like section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act amendments, both of which provide legal protection and accommodations for workers at federal and private firms.

"What ramps can we build to make LD adults successful?" he asks. "They could ask for quiet space, maybe extra time if it's possible, and with Dragon (a voice-to-text program) their emails would get done three times faster."

These "ramps," he argues, are essential for LD men and women to utilize from grade school all the way into the working world, the goal being that the student progressively gains a firmer grip on understanding and working with his or her disability. Likewise, Professor Madaus, in his study, found that many of the non-disclosers were self-accommodating, meaning they've found ways to work with their disability by developing strategies and goals.

At The NOCtv, Tom Reed has found ways to highlight his strong features and work around the organizational difficulties brought about by his processing disorder. Early on, his bosses would assign him managerial and accounting work, which Reed struggled with, but he advocated for himself and showed his bosses that he excelled at creative tasks like reading, writing, and researching.

"Now at work I use my creative side more than my organizational side," says Reed. "My performance has carved out my strengths."

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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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