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Disclosing One's Learning Disabilities in Young Adulthood

An expert offers guidelines for when, why, and how individuals should disclose their learning disabilities in a job, school, or social setting.

By Paul Gerber, Ph.D.

When a young adult with learning disabilities (LD) leaves school and begins to experience the demands of adulthood, she faces a major decision: Whether or not to disclose her LD in a post-secondary education, training, or employment setting. In the school-age years a student with LD is typically identified formally so that appropriate instruction and services can be identified. In this environment, the complexities LD are largely understood. As a result, opportunities are rare during school years for a teenager to practice self-disclosure of her LD.

Conversely, the beyond-school years present a young person with many situations where she must decide whether or not to self-disclose her LD. Since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the mandatory federal special education law which requires the "label" of LD, no longer applies after high school, a person with LD no longer has to be identified as learning disabled if they do not want to be! The young adult with LD must grapple with two central questions: Why would I want to disclose my LD? What are the risks and benefits of that decision? If her high school has offered little transition preparation and practice in the strategies of self-disclosure of LD, a young person might feel that it's easier just to forget about being learning disabled altogether. It might seem more convenient to think of her LD as a condition that's only relevant until high school graduation, having little to do with her future in college, job training, or employment.

To disclose or not to disclose: that is the question

The decision about whether to disclose one's LD merits very serious consideration. In the beyond-school world, the term "learning disabilities" is not well understood. Unfortunately, a shocking number of the public equate LD with mental retardation. Those who do understand the difference in cognitive ability between LD and mental retardation often do not understand the varied range of learning issues, such as dyslexia, attention problems, or processing disorders. To add to the confusion, since learning disabilities are invisible, the behavior of people with LD is often misinterpreted by people with whom they interact in the beyond-school world.

Before the young adult makes the decision about whether or not to disclose her LD, she must consider carefully the pros and cons.  There are many reasons why a young adult might think that self-disclosure of her LD is not an option:

  • Adults with LD typically recount that the stigma attached to LD during the school-age years was the most painful part of their childhood. By not disclosing one's LD in adulthood, they hope to avoid the stigma of that label in their adult years.
  • Oftentimes LD is viewed as purely an educational issue, having little to do with the adult years. In adulthood a person with LD has more freedom to pursue interests that stem from her strengths, as opposed to being forced to learn or perform school tasks that are difficult or impossible because of her LD.
  • It is common for a person with LD not to understand what LD is, what her specific LD profile is, and how to explain the profile to others. (An LD profile includes such things as a person's strengths and weaknesses in learning and performance, ways to compensate for the LD, and ways to seek or structure the school or workplace accommodations appropriate to her LD.) So, lack of general understanding of LD, and of one's specific LD profile, is a deterrent to self-disclosure. 
  • Young people with LD often lack knowledge about two federal laws that can be very beneficial in their beyond-school years. In the area of employment, one needs to know the basic rights and benefits of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In the area of postsecondary education and training, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act can trigger accommodations for learning and testing.  A young person can miss important opportunities if she does not understand the accommodations and protections offered by these laws.  Unfortunately, instruction on these laws, and how they can be used effectively in the beyond-school years, is not typically included in high school transition curriculum.

Comments from readers

"I am a parent of a 20 year old with a LD. Can you reccommend a web site that can help me help him as I am having a difficult time guiding him. He is working but is struggling with many issues. (Low self esteem, no friends, depression, etc. Can you help ? "