Get the Best from Employees with Learning Disabilities

By Flynn, Gillian | Personnel Journal, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Get the Best from Employees with Learning Disabilities


Flynn, Gillian, Personnel Journal


Chances are, you either have, or will have, a few employees who have some kind of learning disability. Educate yourself now on how to manage these employees to peak performance.

At the Red Lion Hotel in Costa Mesa, California, Robert Suderman is somewhat of a local hero. Friendly, focused and enthusiastic, Suderman is one of those people who just loves his job-so much that he bemoaned all the spare time he had during the end-of-the-year holidays. Suderman's winning streak began in the HR department, where he input personnel file information into the computer. Every day he came in, working steadily and efficiently at a routine task many other employees might have balked at.

Upon finishing that task, he asked for more, this time something extra challenging. Now he assists a payroll professional in the company's accounting department. "Again, the job is a bit routine, but it's something the payroll person was behind on, and it did have some additional steps," says Jan Linville, director of HR. "He's mastered it now and is feeling really good about it. He's performing a necessary function and is helping the staff work more efficiently." But aside from being a tireless employee, Suderman has another quality that distinguishes him: He contributes to the organization despite having a disability that causes him to be a slow learner.

Believe it or not, Suderman's achievement is rare. Even with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, many people who have learning disabilities (LDs) remain unaided-mostly because a learning disability isn't as easy to spot as a physical disability. Managers may not be able to identify performance problems as symptoms of an LD, and so may neglect to promote, or even terminate, an employee who's embarrassed to ask for help.

And there are quite a few employees who fall into this category. According to the "Journal of Learning Disabilities," approximately 10% to 15% of employees in any large industry or business have learning disabilities. They need an environment in which they feel comfortable disclosing their disabilities and seeking help. And you need to know how to help them. The much-buzzedabout upcoming labor shortage, a result of baby-boomer retirements, is going to demand you're open to all kinds of workers, including those categorized as slow learners.

Identify and encourage disclosure of learning disabilities. Do you have any employees with learning disabilities? You may or may not know. Most people with learning disabilities look just like everyone else. A learning disability can come in the form of dyslexia, which makes reading difficult and can affect people of even genius-level intelligence (such as Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison). Or it may be more severe, such as disabilities that cause a person to be lower-functioning--though, it's important to note, not to the level of low intelligence or retardation. "It's very difficult to identify people with learning disabilities," says Elaine Reisman, assistant professor at Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and director of the Threshold Program, a center to aid people with learning disabilities. "People in business can be very aware if someone needs a wheelchair. But if someone is a slow learner because of a learning disability, it's not apparent right away, and you don't know right away what to do about it."

Indeed, with the exception of people whose learning disabilities prohibit them from high functioning, the only way a company would know an employee has an LD is if the employee came forth or if a manager identified certain characteristics as potential links to a learning disability. Of course, the easier of the two would be for the employee to self-identify. This way, any performance issues could be addressed up front before they became problematic. But naturally, many people are reluctant to come forth, afraid they'll be categorized as having inferior intelligence or a lack of education-neither of which is the cause of a learning disability (see definition above). …

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