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.

"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.

"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."