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.
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