By Paul Gerber, Ph.D.
Many famous people in history are thought to have been learning disabled. Such names as Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Winston Churchill, and John D. Rockefeller are examples. Today there are living examples of successful people with learning disabilities (LD), such as Charles Schwab (Founder and Chairman of The Charles Schwab Corporation), John Chambers (President and CEO of Cisco Systems), and Gaston Caperton (President of the College Board). Their perseverance, intellect, and leadership provide motivation to all those who have LD and who aspire to success despite the odds." Without question, these famous people became successful though their own trials and tribulations. Yet their success offers an example for anyone with LD. These individuals with LD found the "best fit" between their particular strengths, skills, and interests, and the goals they pursued in their adult life.
It is important to understand that the journeys of tens of thousands of "ordinary" people with LD are just as challenging as the paths taken by individuals with LD who have become household names. In a practical sense, however, anyone with LD can succeed by sticking to some basic guidelines that facilitate a smooth job entry and foster opportunities for job advancement.
Research on success in the workplace makes it apparent that finding the "best fit" is key to a good start toward a satisfying employment experience. That is one of the perks of life beyond school: One can carve out a "niche of competence," rather than be confronted by daily academic tasks that are too challenging because of a learning disability.
"Best fit" goes beyond knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the person with learning disabilities, however. It also means seeking out employers in the private or public sector who are "disability friendly." Many businesses in communities all around the United States believe in a diverse workforce that includes all people with disabilities — and those with learning disabilities specifically. These employers believe they have a responsibility to be good corporate citizens. They have human resource departments and supervisors who are trained to work with the issues of disabilities, and they believe that people with LD can contribute to the mission of their business enterprises. Examples nationally of such businesses are the Marriott Corporation, IBM, Southland Corporation (7-11), and McDonald's. To identify local examples of disability-friendly workplaces, contact disability advocacy groups and selected state, county, and city governmental agencies.
"Best fit" also involves making sure one fits within a work group. While a disability-friendly business organization is important, ones co-workers and colleagues are also important contributors to job satisfaction, to support, and ultimately to productivity. Contrary to popular belief, the research indicates that persons with LD who go straight from school to work most often find a job through "word of mouth." It is very common for them to hear of job openings from friends, family, or neighbors, as well as from employees within the business.
This informal job search process provides the opportunity for a person with LD to ask about the spirit of the company, the disposition of the boss, possible job supports, and the climate of the work group where there is a job opening. That is valuable information about what really is happening in a job environment. This knowledge allows a person with LD to envision her fit, beyond just the specific skills needed to do the job adequately.
It is important to find the best fit possible between the young person with LD and a job. However, work environments can change from one year to the next. In fact, a young adult should anticipate a changing work environment. For example, a new supervisor can be assigned to a work unit, or job roles can be restructured, according to the changing needs of the business. These are just two of the many realities of competitive employment. So, people with LD must be vigilant about their job situation and monitor it very carefully. Attending work unit meetings and seeking out the opinions of co-workers on work-related issues are examples of monitoring one's work situation. To respond effectively to workplace change, flexibility is very important, as is the ability to be an effective self-advocate.
Within the framework of a changing workplace are further options for employees with learning disabilities. Those are self-disclosure and the use of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The decision to disclose one's disability to an employer or to invoke one's rights under ADA brings a new set of dynamics to the employment experience. They place learning disabilities "front and center" in a very important life activity.
Research shows that most individuals with learning disabilities do not disclose that they have a learning disability at the point of job entry, or even during the first few years of employment. There are a number of reasons for this, including fear of being stigmatized, lack of knowledge in society about learning disabilities, and feeling that there is more risk than benefit associated with self-disclosure, even when accommodations guaranteed under the ADA can aid in employment adjustment and success. If a young person with LD can successfully advocate for herself, by articulating how the demands of her work are affected by the manifestations of her learning disability, then she can deal with change effectively and efficiently.
With the choice of self-disclosure and the ongoing process of self-advocacy, the ADA becomes a very important "tool" for the young person with LD, not only for equity, but for support for workplace efficiency and productivity. It's important to remember, however, that the employee with LD must disclose her disability and thereby invoke her rights under the ADA, in order for reasonable accommodations to be mandatory.
ADA is an equal employment opportunity law, and LD is one of many disabilities the law covers. ADA is not, however, an affirmative action program. Therefore, a person with LD cannot be discriminated against in employment because of a disability issue, but she must compete for the job on an equal footing with other candidates. So, In order for her to be protected by the ADA, it is imperative that she be "qualified." That means she must have the "essential functions" (knowledge and skills) to do the job. "Essential functions" is a key aspect of the concept of "best fit" mentioned above.
After a young person has established her qualifications for the job and competed successfully to get the job, then she can request "reasonable accommodations," which help provide an even better fit for the job. Reasonable accommodations means that the environment, the employment process, and the job tasks, either individually or in combination, are modified in order to minimize the effects of a learning disability.
Once on the job, it is important for employees with LD to be resourceful in countering any effects of LD that interfere with satisfactory job performance. Therefore, the mantra of adults with LD comes into play: Always be looking for resources for workplace support because the workplace is an ongoing journey of adjusting to a multiplicity of ever-changing demands. An invaluable and free-of-charge support is the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), which has a website (http://www.jan.wvu.edu/) and a toll-free phone number (1-800-526-7234). Their services are intended for adults with learning disabilities and/or their work supervisors. Most important, the consultants at JAN are particularly skilled at solving LD-related job problems, in order to facilitate job success.
Literacy centers are another support that can promote the development of skills to improve job performance, such as reading, writing, and computing. Research shows that the great majority of adults with learning disabilities do not go on to post-secondary education. Literacy centers can provide skill acquisition on a short-term basis and with one-on-one instruction. Their services provide the employee with LD an opportunity to upgrade her skills without placing too many demands on her employer.
The destiny of persons with LD is competitive employment. Recent employment reports describe an ever-changing job market. It is not uncommon for an employee in the U.S. to have as many as eight jobs in the first ten years of employment. The young person with LD needs to look beyond the point of job entry and take a long-term view of transition to a workplace where change can be constant. Under current labor market conditions, finding the best fit at job entry is an important ingredient of success. The other key ingredient is constantly being adaptive to the changing demands of the workplace.