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.
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.
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.
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