Transition to Work: Helping Teens Prepare for Typical Employer Questions

For young adults with learning disabilities, answering an employer's questions about learning difficulties takes self-awareness and preparation. Learn how to get ready for that conversation!

By Paul Gerber, Ph.D.

Once a young person with learning disabilities (LD) leaves school and enters the world of employment, she faces a new set of challenges. No longer can the young person count on the relative comfort of school settings where LD is understood and the necessary services planned for. Beyond the friendly confines of elementary and secondary school is a world in which the term "learning disabilities" may be familiar, but is not necessarily well understood.

Challenges typically begin on a young person's first day on the job, but they can even come into play in the process of seeking employment. This is true across the country, despite the fact that progressive, equal opportunity legislation, namely the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), has been in effect since 1992.

Because employers often don't understand LD and relevant laws, an individual with LD must understand and be able to articulate a number of issues related to her concept of "self." Such awareness is consistent with the expectations of adulthood, when one is supposed to become more independent and autonomous in thoughts and actions. To explain effectively the impact of her disability in an employment setting, a young person must understand and act on these three main competencies that relate to self: self-knowledge, self-disclosure, and self-advocacy.

Concepts of Self

Self-knowledge is important because a person with LD needs to have a solid understanding of her profile as a learner and as an employee. That understanding should include the type of LD she has, and how it manifests itself in a variety of tasks. She must understand her strengths and weaknesses, as well as any accommodations necessary in order for her to perform job-related tasks efficiently and effectively. Examples of workplace accommodations are using a calculator or spell checker to perform job tasks, or finding a quiet area to work.

Self-disclosure of her LD is a process that allows a young employee to broach the subject of her disability with a prospective employer, or with a current supervisor or co-worker, and explain how it affects her functioning on the job. How positively she conveys her ideas about challenges helps frame how positively others think of them in both professional and personal interactions. When a young adult discloses her LD, it can be viewed by the employer as taking a pro-active stance regarding her disability, which can instill confidence.

Self-advocacy is an ongoing process in which the person with LD makes a positive, matter-of-fact statement of her specific needs for accommodations related to her LD, in order to effectively meet a job responsibility. To make those accommodations clear to a prospective employer, a young person might describe: how co-workers or technology can support job productivity; how job tasks can be restructured so that they can be performed efficiently; or how alternate approaches to tasks can keep the disability from interfering with efficiency.

When a person with a LD has a firm understanding of these competencies related to "self," and how they apply to her and her LD, the questions listed below should be easier to respond to in an effective and efficient manner.

Disclosing One's Learning Disability

It should be noted that the choice to disclose one's LD in a job setting is a very personal one. Some individuals decide not to disclose their LD because of the stigma they experienced during their school years, as well as the uncertainties of discussing LD from a personal perspective. Other young people with LD want to disclose their disability because they want to take advantage of the rights and concomitant opportunities afforded them under the ADA. No matter what choice a young adult makes, the decision is mediated by the issues of self listed above.

Without question, if a young person is to disclose her LD in an employment setting, she should be able to discuss fully the kinds of questions below, which employers typically ask. The following ten questions have been derived from years of research and scores of interviews with employers and adults with LD in employment settings. They represent the most basic ideas and concerns of employers. In addition, for each question, commentary is provided to assist a young person to frame her thinking, based on her specific LD.

Ten Typical Questions Employers Ask Applicants with Learning Problems

"What exactly is your disability?"

This basic question gets to the heart of the matter. The invisibility of LD is very perplexing for most people, including employers. In essence, if you cannot see it, how can you understand it? It can seem very abstract. The most easily understood disabilities are ones that are sensory or physical in nature. It is easier to comprehend the challenges of blindness or deafness, as well as impairments that require use of a wheelchair or crutches. Moreover, accommodations for those disabilities are easier to grasp, as well. So, it is important to be specific about one's own LD whether it is dyslexia, auditory processing, attention deficit, memory deficit, or another disorder.

"What does the term ' learning disabilities' mean?"

"Learning disabilities" (LD) is an umbrella term encompassing many issues. The term has been part of the national conversation for a good number of years, but unfortunately it's still not well understood by the general public. The key for the young person is to know exactly what her learning disability is and be able to describe clearly to an employer how it manifests itself, and which compensations or accommodations she uses to "work around" it.

"Aren't learning disabilities the same as mental retardation?"

A 2000 Roper-Starch poll revealed that the majority of people in this country thought learning disabilities were the same as mental retardation. But nothing could be further from the truth. Each is a cognitive disability, but the prospects for adjustment to the demands of daily life are markedly different between the two conditions. By definition, a person with LD has average to above-average intelligence. A person with mental retardation, on the other hand, has below-average intelligence and faces significant challenges in adapting her behavior to meet the demands of daily life. Consequently, the vast majority of persons with LD will engage in competitive employment, while those with mental retardation will not.

"What kinds of accommodations do you need when you work?"

Many employers are eager to be good corporate citizens, so they are willing to provide reasonable accommodations for persons with LD. However, they are not LD specialists and they must rely on employees with LD themselves to know or figure out the accommodations they need in order to perform productively at work. Accommodations might include the use of assistive technology, or the kinds of accommodations that worked for learning and testing during the young person's school years.

"How can you be most effective and efficient in your work?"

Since all employers have an eye on productivity, they are most interested in facilitating workplace conditions that promote effectiveness and efficiency. It is the responsibility of the young person with LD to know what she does best, and under what conditions she does her best work. In addition, she needs to be fully aware of challenges to productivity caused by her learning disability so she can arrange for job accommodations. Employers seem open to new ways to accomplish tasks, but they rightfully monitor how tasks are accomplished in the workplace, in order to maintain smooth processes and procedures.

"When we train you, can you tell the trainers how you learn best?"

Employee training is commonplace in competitive employment. Change is constant, and new ways of doing things are frequently introduced to employees. Whether it is new paperwork, more advanced computer applications, or innovative sales strategies, training to update skills is important. An employee with LD is expected to participate in training and articulate her need for specific training accommodations if necessary. This knowledge is usually an extension of a young person's understanding of how she learns best, which she probably figured out while in school. For example, she might let the employer know that she learns best by listening to training content, or by seeing a skill modeled. She might indicate that written materials work better for her when they include graphics that organize or emphasize the important points, such as bullets and boldface print.

"Can you work well with people?" "Can you work on a team?"

A lot of what happens in the workplace has social and interpersonal underpinnings. Whether interacting with colleagues and supervisors or communicating with clients and customers, social skills are very important. The learning disabilities literature is filled with research that demonstrates that, from childhood to adulthood, persons with LD demonstrate deficiencies in social skills. In employment settings this can determine whether a sale is closed, an order arrives on time, or a bottleneck in production is cleared up.

Employers are very interested in social skills, and they track them from the interview process on. It is important for an individual with LD to understand her social and communications styles and to demonstrate proficient social skills during the interview and on the job. For example, during a job interview, it is important to be able to establish rapport with the interviewer, to listen carefully, and to stay on point when responding to a question.

"Can you be given a lead role in a work group?"

Not surprisingly, much of the transition literature focuses on getting one's first job. Yet once hired, an employee is often expected to eventually take the lead on some projects, which opens up the possibility of job advancement. Therefore, it is important for employees with LD to see beyond their initial job role and to envision taking the lead when asked. In order to be prepared to take advantage of opportunities for job advancement, it is important for a young person to be aware of her interpersonal style, and how it can be used to develop an effective leadership style.

"Are you an organized person?" "Can you describe your organizational style?"

Because workplace efficiency leads to greater productivity, organizational style becomes an important criterion for hiring an employee, as well as for evaluating her performance. A young person with LD should be able to articulate her style, whether in time management, task management and tracking, or meeting deadlines. The key is to know one's style and be able to describe it in order to show how individual organizational style will mesh with the tasks or overall purposes of the business or organization.

"Can you work as well as the next person?"

When an employer asks a question like this, the challenge for the young adult with LD is to be able to hear the question behind it, without becoming upset or defensive. What employers often wonder - perhaps unconsciously - is, "Am I taking a risk in hiring this young person?" It's up to the young adult to approach the question positively and matter-of-factly. The key is to communicate self-confidence, as a means to instill confidence in the prospective employer or boss. In order to do this, the young person must understand, be articulate about, and be able to convince the employer of, her strengths and abilities, and her knowledge of effective ways to "work around" her LD in the job setting.

Competence, Self-Awareness Key

It's important to remember that, even if a young person brings the Americans with Disabilities Act to bear on the employment process, there is no guarantee that she will be hired. ADA is an equal opportunity law, whose purpose is to provide job applicants with LD a "level playing field." It is not an affirmative action law. Whether the young person with LD has the qualifications to do the job (with reasonable accommodations, if needed) is the ultimate criterion for hiring her and, subsequently, for evaluating her job performance.

These questions that employers typically ask can serve as a partial "checklist" of important job search and employment skills for a young person with LD. In order to answer them effectively, young people in middle school and high school should be encouraged to think about and become competent in self-knowledge, self-disclosure, and self-advocacy, particularly in relation to their LD. They must understand and be conversant about their LD as it applies to productivity in the workplace. Young people who are able to master these competencies are more likely to be competitive in job seeking, and successful as an employee.