Getting a job, getting a life: The workplace and young people with LD

Expert advice for parents on starting early to help kids with learning disabilities prepare for success in the workplace.

By Paul Gerber, Ph.D.

It’s never too early to start thinking about work and post-high school life for children with learning disabilities and other disorders. Waiting until the waning days of high school will likely leave you scrambling to make sure your child is ready for the world of work.

Indeed, with all that needs to be considered and put into action, transition planning should start no later than the very first days of high school, if not in middle school. Since the vast majority of students with learning disabilities (LD) go straight from school to work (estimates hover around 85 percent), these years become critical to the transition process.

Beyond academics

Students with learning disabilities should master as many academic skills as possible (reading, writing, computing, and math) and learn about the myriad issues related to careers and the workplace. But it is also during high school that other important competencies such as prevocational skills — time management, taking instructions from supervisors, and others — must be fully addressed, so that the student will be ready to navigate in the world beyond school, particularly on the job.

When the transition process is done right, being successful at work is definitely within reach. So how is it done right? That's when the whole transition process is viewed as an interactive one among the young adult making the transition, his coworkers, and the employer.

Transition to employment must also be a process in which the responsibility for success chiefly falls on the young person with LD himself. So he needs to have a clear notion at all times of what to do, in order to be in control of the ever-changing circumstances of his world. He also needs to have a sense of how to adapt to the variety of work environments and diversity of tasks that present themselves in competitive employment. If these two competencies can be learned and used effectively, then there is a good likelihood that a young person will make a successful transition to employment.

Reframing disabilities

Without question, one of the mandatory elements of the transition process is for the young adult to come to grips with the learning disability itself — the learning disabilities literature call this reframing. Reframing involves a number of phases. First, the person with LD must have a clear understanding that he actually has a learning disability. That means that any issues of denial must be dealt with — for example, the belief that LD is "just a problem when I'm at school." Moreover, this acceptance infers that learning disabilities are real and will persist in the years past schooling, although they might take different forms in various adult contexts — including employment.

Second, in order to adjust to the workplace, a person with learning disabilities must develop a firm understanding of his profile of strengths, weaknesses, and challenges, beyond the basic psychological processes such as memory, processing, and organization. Moreover, the young person needs to know how to emphasize and celebrate his strengths, and deal with weaknesses using compensatory strategies, and tried-and-true accommodations such as calculators, spell checkers, and the like. With a self-inventory of strengths and weaknesses, the young person with LD should have the wherewithal to figure out how his learning disability will affect performance of job tasks and social interactions in the work environment. Most important, a young person must constantly work on a full understanding of his learning disability, as each task, interaction, and workday yields new information. In effect, understanding one's disability is an ongoing, ever-changing process.

Third, in order to deal effectively with his disability beyond the school years, a young person needs to have a healthy degree of acceptance of having an LD. He must accept it as a part of everyday life, which can emerge at any time, and which has to be dealt with in an efficient manner — for example, an inability to remember details, or difficulty with setting task priorities. Therefore, in order to compete, accomplish tasks, and succeed in employment and life, a young adult must accentuate his strengths and bypass or accommodate his weaknesses. Adults with learning disabilities say over and over again in interviews that once they accepted their learning disability and its challenges, they were freed up to take on the many demands of the workplace.

Adaptation in employment settings

The other challenge of successful transition is being adaptive to employment settings. It is important for a person with LD to be vigilant about orchestrating an environment where he can succeed — by either adapting himself to the work situation, making the work situation adaptive to him, or both. Individuals with LD need to be able to think creatively in order to alter work situations so they can perform more effectively and efficiently. For example, an alteration might be finding a quiet place to work, using computer software to help manage a task, or asking a colleague for assistance.

With self-knowledge about his learning disability, and a creative approach to adapting to the workplace, the young person can address the challenge of finding the best fit between himself and the work. Best fit means working in a job role that:

Together, the ingredients listed above comprise a learning disabilities-friendly employment setting. In this kind of work environment, a person with LD can feel comfortable, be effective, and advance.

Social skills

Social skills are another important underpinning for success in any employment setting. A young person with LD must possess a social skills repertoire that includes conversing, reciprocating, supporting others, and taking responsibility, to name just a few. Without question these social skills should be well honed in competitive employment, which means they must be learned during the transition preparation years in high school, or earlier. A transition program that does not focus on social skills will put a person with LD at risk for failure in employment.

Ultimately, successful transition from school to employment depends on establishing a strong work ethic. This includes basic behaviors like getting to work on time and showing enthusiasm for work, as well as more advanced behaviors such as taking initiative at work and being a good team member. Young adults should learn these routines before leaving school, and should solidly implement them in employment settings, beginning on the first day of work. Practicing such routines means handing in homework on a timely basis, managing one's time, taking responsibility for one's own performance, asking for and using another person's help or advice, and many others.

Lessons from adults with LD

The message from individuals with learning disabilities who are successful in the workplace is simple: Because you are learning disabled you must be more conscientious in your work — both to compensate for your disability, and to counter any negative ideas coworkers may have about LD. That attitude will have a great effect on your work. The words of persons with learning disabilities who have made it in employment are pragmatic and instructive. Consider their experience and wisdom when talking with a teenager about preparing himself for the workplace:

"Work as hard as you can so people can see you are really trying. Get to work early and work late if you have to."

"Be prepared — that is when you are the most self-confident."

"Don't take no for an answer; go after it and accomplish it."

"Reflect on each day's work at 4 p.m., and make a list of the next day's tasks and problems."

"Use compensation as an anchor."

"Take responsibility for yourself."

"Learn to work harder when you have to."

"Learn as much as you can about your strengths and weaknesses in the work setting."

"See failures as setbacks, but use setbacks as goals to conquer."

"Recognize when someone is extending a hand. Be willing to grab it but not abuse it."

The process of transitioning to employment is as individual as the young person with LD himself. There is no one profile that captures the complexity of how a young person with learning disabilities can successfully adapt to an employment setting. Without question, however, successful transition to employment requires three key elements: A transition program in middle school and high school that is linked to the realities of the workplace; a young person's ability to reframe his learning disability; and a young person's willingness to be adaptive and flexible in employment settings. Parents should closely monitor the school's transition program. With parent support, the young person himself should take major responsibility for reframing his disability and learning how to be flexible and adaptable in the work setting.

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