Adults With Learning Disabilities in the Workplace

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Learning disabilities include a range of neurological disorders that impact how a person's brain processes information. These disorders can affect skills such as reading, writing, speaking, recalling, and reasoning. The impact of these disorders is not restricted to childhood. Adults with learning disabilities in the workplace may face a number of unique challenges.

Before special education programs existed, students with learning disabilities were all too often labeled as "slow learners," "mentally disabled," or "lazy." As a result, it was not uncommon for such students to not graduate from high school or continue into postsecondary education. Furthermore, many adults with learning disabilities were never diagnosed and did not receive appropriate instruction for their disabilities.

The result of all this is a lack of training, self-confidence, and ability to leverage strengths to increase the odds of success in the workplace.

While learning disabilities can present challenges for adults in the workplace, there are potential advantages as well as steps adults can take to manage difficulties. Focusing on strengths can help minimize stigma, but also foster confidence and self-esteem.

Strengths

Adults experience their learning differences in various ways, depending on the type of learning disability they have. Nevertheless, having experienced a learning disability of any kind as a child prompts many adults to develop skills that other people may lack. 

For example, they may have learned how to work around difficulties, seek out answers from experts, or come up with new ways to meet goals. Many adults with learning disabilities have at least some of these strengths in common:

  • They are often creative problem-solvers.
  • Their skills in non-disability areas are just as strong as, or better than, other adults.
  • They are frequently very resourceful and can use and adapt materials and processes in creative ways.
  • They may have stronger-than-average strengths in such areas as spatial reasoning, "big picture" thinking, and personal empathy.

Depending on their personal goals and abilities, people with learning disabilities can become business leaders and entrepreneurs, among many other things. Their willingness to think outside of the box can lead to the development of new, marketable ideas and products, and their strengths may make them exceedingly successful in certain career areas.

Facing the challenges presented by a learning disability can also help foster the development of self-efficacy or the belief in your ability to succeed. In one 2008 study of adults with learning disabilities, researchers found that respondents reported high overall levels of job satisfaction, which was linked to a strong sense of self-efficacy. 

Challenges 

Of course, having any type of disability creates at least some difficulties, and learning disabilities can be particularly challenging because they are often invisible. Also, in some cases, feelings of inadequacy that may start in childhood can continue to create problems in adulthood. These feelings can be exacerbated by:

  • Lack of understanding and support from employers
  • A difficulty with promotion and advancement opportunities
  • Only being offered low-paying jobs
  • Lack of assistive technology or adaptive equipment at work
  • Lack of technology to allow them access to continuing education courses and reading materials

An additional challenge is that many workers never reveal their learning disability to their employer and even fewer request any type of accommodation. In one 2008 study, researchers found that while 73 percent of respondents felt that their learning disability had an impact on their job, only 55 percent disclosed their disability to their employer and a mere 12 percent requested accommodations.

Resources That Can Help

While adults may struggle with their learning disabilities, many can thrive with appropriate supports in the workplace. Self-advocacy is a critical skill that can help ensure that such supports are present. It's also important to know where to turn for training, financial resources, job coaching, and other supports that are available through state and federal agencies. 

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's website has a wealth of resources that you may find useful.

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