Learning Disabilities in the Workplace

Employer consulting with employeeLearning disabilities may make it difficult for an individual to learn, work, or behave in the manner that ordinarily would be expected.

A learning disability is an impairment of neurological origin that impacts on specific areas of learning. The following are major types of learning disabilities:

  • A sequencing disorder is a difficulty with the order of a series of things. It may lead to problems with prioritizing, organizing, doing mathematics and following instructions.
  • Language disorders are difficulties with receptive language (understanding and remembering) or with expressive language (oral or in writing).
  • Visual perceptual and visual motor disorders are difficulties with processing in-formation visually, thus leading to problems with reading, spelling and writing. This is sometimes termed “dyslexia”.
  • Auditory disorders are difficulties with processing sounds, such as distinguishing words that sound similar.
  • A memory disorder is a difficulty retrieving certain information from memory within a reasonable time.
  • Gross motor and fine motor disorders interfere with coordination. A problem with fine motor coordination could lead to difficulty with handwriting.

A learning disability is not an emotional disturbance, intellectual disability, or sensory impairment. It is not the result of environmental deprivation, inadequate parenting or lack of educational opportunity. Individuals with learning disabilities also have strengths. They can be successful in the workplace. Employer, family and other social supports, combined with a willingness of the individual to advocate for himself, are key elements in achieving success.

Reasonable Accommodations – Employers

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (RA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) provide that employers covered by either of these laws make reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with impairments that substantially limit a major life activity, such as learning. To show that a person has a disability under these laws, it is necessary to establish substantial limitation in a major life activity compared to most people.

Accommodations for an individual with learning disabilities depend upon the particular learning disabilities involved in the individual case. Generally, the successful accommodations are ones which will 1] provide clear guidance as to workplace expectations, both for the “hardcore” work tasks and the more broadly social ones inherent in the workplace, 2] provide clear and repeated work instructions, both orally and in writing, and 3] respond with specific aids to the particular learning disabilities.

Possible specific accommodations include: checklists to assist with organization, periodic meetings with supervisors, frequent and specific feedback on meeting expectations, modified examinations and training programs, and modified work schedules.

Strategies – Employees

It cannot be stressed too strongly that the process of achieving success is a two way street. Individuals with learning disabilities and employers should work together for their mutual benefit.

Individuals with learning disabilities should inform themselves. They may obtain evaluations from professionals in the fields of psychology, medicine, education, and career counseling which may assist them in selecting suitable employment, designing helpful strategies and, if appropriate, requesting accommodations which are truly suited to their needs.

Possible strategies include: 1] take notes or use a taper recorder during meetings, training courses and seminars, 2] use a day planner book or electronic scheduler to make a “to do” list and to make notes, 3] keep work space orderly and clean, 4] leave early for work, interviews, appointments and meetings, and 5] set aside 15 minutes at the end of the day to plan your work for the next day.

Each individual with learning disabilities is unique and has particular learning disabilities and strengths. Accommodations and strategies should be tailored to individual needs to maximize success in the workplace.

Authors: Peter S. Latham, J.D. and Patricia H. Latham, J.D.

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  1. Hello

    I have a learning disabilird and I work at camp barnbas lady year and I was trying to find a job know it hard bucause idk have school or degree thank u

    Rachel w

    • Nancie Payne says:

      Hi Rachel,
      What city/state are you located in? there are services for people with learning and other disabilities but without knowing which state/city it is hard to get you the correct information. Nancie

  2. Hi I’ve had learning disability all my life I was special education when I was in school. What kind of college are out there and jobs for people with learning disabilities?

  3. I grew up with a learning disability I have a B.S. in Criminal Justice just recently I was let go by an employer because they said I was not picking up the information fast enough. How do I find a learning disability friendly employer

    • I can relate to that, I graduated in HVAC two years ago. With the growing problem of newly grads finding work out there its been a struggle to find work and with my LDs as well. Now, i also learned one thing that is very helpful and that also depends on what your political views are and which state you live in. Unions are very good at recognizing people who have disabilities that the employers are ignorant towards. Being in a local union at the workplace does help. It helped me. Consider thinking about that Aimee.

  4. I have struggled with some forms of LD all my life. In the past 3 years since my Dads death everything has taken a turn for the worst in the area. I have been unsuccessful at jobs due to not comprehending and able to retain info. One doctor ruled out Bipolar but im still having trouble with certain things. Unfortanately my parents did not work hard on helping me with my learning ailments when i was a child. Now its back and worse than anything.

  5. Hello all,

    My name is Charles. I too suffer from a learning disability. With hard work and determination I was able to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in accounting maintaining a 3.0 gpa. It was very difficult! However, the real challenge has just begun. I have been struggling at my new job with a new database system and procedures. I can’t seem to remember anything and I often lose track of time. My disability effects me more now than any other point in my life. Please help if you know of any adult LD assessments in South Carolina.

    Thank you

  6. Heather White says:

    I have a learning dissability that I was diagnosed with back in elementary school. I am 42 now. I haven’t had a job in years and 4 weeks ago I was hired at Michael’s as a cashier. I have problems with sequencing, visual perceptual, language disorder and memory disorder. In the monothing I have had the job I worked two days on register for a total of 8 hours. They saw I was struggling and I explained I have a learning dissability. The next next day they put me on floor and I was told I did better. Today after not working for 9 days they toss me back on register. This is only my third time on it. Today I was told again I am not leaving last enough. I told them again about my learning dissability and I was told they need to to hurry up and learn it. They haven’t done much training and basically threw me on my first day as the only cashier and the only real help I receive or training is when I get lost and don’t know what to do. I am scared I am going to be fired and don’t know what to do. I am trying my best and as usual it just isn’t good enough. I live in the Sacramento California area where there are a lot of people that I am sure can take my place and my managers won’t have to bother with someone with a learning dissability. My whole life insurance have felt I am not good enough and can’t do what everyone else can. I feel stupid and less than. All the feelings I had in school are all flooding back to be as all night adult.

    • Hi Heather
      Buy your self a small notebook and create a cheat sheet by writing down any crucial information . People with learning disabilities are visual learners. Concrete information are very indispensable for people like us.

  7. alison nolan says:

    I have taught children and adults for 30 years and have never met anyone who couldn’t learn what they wanted to learn. Life becomes difficult when other people become involved, especially if they have power over us – like bosses. Your bosses don’t seem to have much interest in supporting you so you need to support yourself. YOU have made this new job happen and YOU are trying your best to learn the different things you need to learn. YOU are making a success of your life!

    Everyone I work with has worries about different parts of their job, nobody is perfect. Remind yourself of the bits of the job that you enjoy and feel confident with, don’t spend all your time worrying about what is difficult.

    When you have things crop up that you do find difficult, why not find a way to remind yourself for next time – a notebook, a rhyme, a scrap of paper even – I’ve seen these and many other tactics used – why else do post it notes even exist! I haven’t time to list all the tactics you might try, but do try to do something – perhaps ask a colleague, when it is quiet, on advice about how they remembered everything when they were learning. I wish you the best and have the deepest admiration for you and how hard you are trying.

    • Alison, thanks for stating the obvious tips that person’s who are clueless about learning disabilities often repeate to us. Learning disabilities means that our minds require us to use a different method to learn than other people use. Although most of what you said is true, learning disability difficulties go much deeper than the surface difficulties that you mentioned.

  8. Just a supervisor says:

    As a supervisor, it’s illegal for me to approach an employee who is struggling to learn, retain, and use training to tell them I think they had a learning disability. I have a person like that on my team right now, and all I can do is handle it from a performance and disciplinary angle. It’s so difficult to watch someone struggle and fail over & over & over while their work piles up and so does mine. I have to spend enormous amounts of time documenting conversations, creating directions, and following up with them like I’m the mother. I can’t get my job done either.

    By law, I am not allowed to say anything that might sound like a diagnosis because I am not a doctor. I can’t just “give ’em a break” and assume the problem is due to anything really. This person owns finding work they can be successful at. I am still wondering why this employee applied for this job knowing full well it requires a *lot* of reading, original writing, analysis, presentations, quick perception, and the ability to process information and respond very quickly. Why would they do that to themselves? (I did not hire this person.) Maybe they are just so self-unaware or in denial about this and how it’s affected their work. I can’t point it out, but the problem is blinking like a red neon sign. I can’t do backflips, so I have never tried to find work as a gymnast. I do other things really well, so that’s what I pursued.

    I also can’t just let the person who seems like they can’t do their job have a pass on performance and get paid the same as everybody else without doing the same job to the same standards. That makes the entire team very angry.

    If you come to me with a formal doctor’s request for accommodations, THEN I can help you. These are forms your HR department can provide to the doctor, but the doctor has to request it. There are limits on what can be requested. It can’t cause overtime to another staff person to take up the slack. It does not erase performance problems that happened before. A well done accommodation request creates a win for everybody. You can’t ask for less work for the same pay. You *can* ask for different ways to get the work done to the required level. It means a lot to see an employee who sincerely wants to solve the problem and isn’t being totally helpless and putting me in the position of coming up with solutions for them. Don’t wait until you have been written up to start helping yourself. Employers with more than 50 employees are required by law in the US to allow this because of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

    I see people struggle in a job that’s just not a good fit and it makes them look bad, feel bad, and believe the wrong things about themselves. If you can work with a counselor or therapist to find out what your strengths are, you can find work that fits and experience the joy of success. You can also learn how to cope with the things you aren’t strong in. Everyone has things they aren’t the best at or don’t come naturally, but we keep working on that. Don’t say “if I can’t do this, then I can’t do anything.”

    I was a terrible software developer. AWFUL. The Worst. Every day was dread, horror, tears, and pain. I wasn’t doing a good job. My brain just does not reason that way. OK, I tried. Now I know. Let’s find something else. And that’s what I’ve been doing for 20+ years.

    Don’t wait until the problem has happened before you take action. You deserve to be successful just like anybody else.

    • Supervisor; a person with a learning disability (ld) has two challenges. 1)Like everyone else , the ld person has to first learn and understand the job. And then preform the job. 2)During training, the ld person must first figure out how to translate what the trainer is teaching into a cognitive learning style that easier for his individual needs. If the training is only for a short time, to 1-3 days, then the training may be almost complete before the ld person has figured out what teaching style the trainer is using, and how to connect that teaching style to his own learning style.

      Since the training session will not be repeated, the ld person is faced with the tough task of figuring out the details of the job while preforming the job. The ld person may be very much suited for the job, yet appear to others like he does not have the right skill set. Then if coworkers start pushing them to hurry and improve, then the individuals stress level increases a great deal making it more difficult to focus on learning what he needs to know. If the pushing and harassing gets bad enough, then learning becomes closer to impossible. If you think this is difficult for you as the supervisor, picture being the person who knows she can do the job, but is still struggling to get on top of things.

      Not all employees with ld is going to tell their boss about it. Although there laws to protect us against discrimination, we all know that if a boss wants to view us as a problem, the boss can come up with other accusations to write up the ld person for in efforts to fire her.

      Also after the ld person thinks she understands the job, she will usually encounter many valid questions while preforming the job. If you want to find out if your employee fits the job and simply has an ld, try being more available and approachable for questions. Take time to go by her work station, smile, make eye contact, and greet her every morning until she relaxes a little around you. Then pay her visits during the workday observing her work. If she is struggling to learn, she should start asking you questions as she works. That will give you the opportunity to get to know her better and direct her on whatever she still needs to understand better. Keep in mind that someone hired her for a reason. It is your job to supervise her.

      This may seem like baby sitting to you; but it is actually the supervisors job to get the team working in harmony to the greater good of the company. If you cannot make time to supervise a struggling employee, then perhaps it is you who is not cut out to be a supervisor of employees. If an employee has an ld, then the supervisor who is only willing to correct by a disciplinary action is worthless and is doing more harm than good.

    • Jeremiah O'Neal says:

      Check your law in your state. I do not believe there is anything preventing you from asking an employee if he or she has a disability. It’s at the time of hiring when you may not ask. Most candidates/ future employees of your business will not disclose their disability due to them fearing that they’ll be discriminated against.

      Of course an employee does not answer unless of course their disability could cause injury for example.

  9. Organization is the key point. Buy binders, notebooks and dividers. Ask for pamphlets or cheat sheets illustrating logistics of operations if possible. Use dividers to separate different topics and tasks. If necessary take as many notes as possible.

  10. Joseph Ojeda says:

    since I was eight years old, I had learning disability, and I was lucky to graduate with a C average in High School, while I was at Chaffey College when I told them my problem, they made me felt with a look in my face, that I didn’t belong there, and that I wasn’t smart enough to go to college, to this day while finishing the summer at San Bernardino Valley College, I have been put on dismissal cause of my GPA, but was to afraid of telling them my problem, but now continuing at Riverside City College, to finally finish my Units, I may now have to tell them my situation to see, if they’ll work with me. In the workforce, when I started working at Ontario West Travel Centers of America/McDonald’s/Strike Replacement Worker at Ralphs I was told that I was too slow, and when I told them of my learning disability, it got even worse that I was bullied about it, and currently working for Loma Linda University Medical Center as Food Service Worker, not only I was told that I was to slow, but nothing but lazy and trouble for the job, but when they learned about my disability it got even out of hand. When I applied for other jobs, thought the hospital or outside the hospital, I felt that they were blocking me cause of my situation, to this day I deal with this bullying problem that occurs in the hospital, and threaten with termination, if I said anything. I feel that I’m running out of hope, have any of you guys been through this? Do you know any careers for people learning disabilities?

    • LDA of America says:

      Hi Joseph,

      It’s important to choose a career or job where you can use your strengths more than your areas of challenges. The ADAAA protects people with disabilities in the workplace, however, so with the right job accommodations in place, you should be able to find a good match with your strengths and interests.

      There are a number of articles about learning disabilities in the workplace at http://oldldaamerica.org/category/workplace-issues/. Also, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) at https://askjan.org/ has online information as well as a toll-free number you can call to speak with a disability expert about jobs and disabilities.

  11. For 30 years I’ve been a teacher. Two years ago I had a physical and mental breakdown and lost my job. I have worked hard to recover and am teaching again. But, now I have slowed down in my ability to process paperwork. I can still do it, just not as fast. My boss is attacking me about it. Can you help me?

  12. Robert Ruelas says:

    I have worked for ups for 20 years and was recently fired for what I was doing,I didn’t realize the impact I was causing,in my mind I was just protecting my clothes. If someone would have warned me I would have stopped. But I was givin no warning. Can anyone help me ? As to what I can do to get my job back. I am a adult with learning disabilities and I can use some help.

  13. I have a learning disability or face some challenges with my job and school (college currently). I got written up at work for forgetting. I am located in Detroit (or Warren) Michigan. Looking for a job gear towards those with learning challenges. Please help! I’m close to quitting my job. (But can’t afford to quit). Looking for state assistance to live (independently) and work from minimal wage.


  14. My girlfriend has a son who has a LD. He likes me but seems withdrawn and only interested in video games. He lives with us and I’m wondering how to help. I seem more critical, but I wish he would be more interested instead of recluse. I don’t know if this will strain our relationship because he moved in with us. I want to get him a job but his mom thinks he can do better. I say get your foot in the door, then show you can do more. Just sounding off. Thanks

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