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

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By Paul Gerber, Ph.D.

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.


  • Brown, D. (1980). Steps to independence for people with learning disabilities. Washington, DC: Closer Look.
  • Gerber, P.J. (2003). Persons with learning disabilities in the workplace: What we know so far in the Americans with Disabilities Act era. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice. 18, 2, 132-136.
  • Gerber, P.J. & Reiff, H.B. (1991). Speaking for themselves: Ethnographic interviews with adults with learning disabilities. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.
  • Patton, J.R. & Blalock, G. (1996). Transition and students with learning disabilities. Austin, TX: PRO-ED.
  • Reiff, H.B., Gerber, P.J. and Ginsberg, R. (1997). Exceeding expectations: Highly successful adults with learning disabilities. Austin, TX: PRO-ED.

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."