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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.

Comments from readers

"Given the syntax of the remark made on 03/01/2011 I would have to say someone was purposely trying to be cruel. Learning disabilities does not equal low wages or low quality of life. "
"To the comment made on 3/1/11 You have plenty to look out for the future. Just because the opinion of one school/job coach is brought to you, that doesn't mean that you have no future. Look hopeful and you will find much!"
"You're deluding yourself. I'm a special education student, and it has been confirmed that I have no future. Come to think of it, I'd be lucky to work the fry machine at McDonald's, in this day and age."
"I am getting ready to open my own small business, retail consignment clothing, and I am starting a program for teens with LD's and offering them a training/mentoring program to get the jump started with their career possiblities. I am so excited and have wonderful feedback from parents of the teens I currently am choosing to use."