Understanding Adults with Learning Disabilities: As More Young Adults Who Received School-Based Accommodations for Their Learning Disabilities Enter the Workforce, Employers Need to Understand How They Are Faring in Employment Settings
Gerber, Paul J., The Journal of Employee Assistance
Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 and its subsequent full implementation in 1992, persons with disabilities have taken their rightful place in America's diverse workforce. In the case of adults with learning disabilities (LD), the vast majority have entered the workforce in competitive employment settings upon leaving high school (Gerber and Reiff 1991).
Currently, there are tens of thousands of individuals with LD in the workforce, some of whom are doing remarkably well, some of whom are struggling. Unfortunately, there is a paucity of research on the realities of the workplace beyond job entry, but the extant literature presents some findings that can be helpful for employers and those in employment support roles.
INVISIBILITY AND COMPLEXITY
At the inception of the ADA, employers felt more comfortable dealing with employees who had physical and sensory disabilities than with employees who had learning disabilities. Compliance with the ADA, in the form of removing architectural barriers and providing physical access, was easier to tackle for workers with physical and sensory disabilities (Gerber 1992). The more difficult disability issues rested in the population of persons with learning disabilities, who were oftentimes looked upon as a mystery.
Even at the end of the 1990s, employers had not reached a firm understanding about individuals with LD because of their invisibility--numerous research studies have found that well over 90 percent of persons with an LD do not disclose their disability in the workplace--and complexity (Price and Gerber 2001). Moreover, as the LD population was characterized as heterogeneous and not a "one size fits all" disability, it was difficult to consolidate thinking about employees with LD in terms of their performance and productivity.
Fortunately for today's employers and for employee assistance professionals, there are a number of research findings about the LD population that are useful in employment settings. They are presented here as a set of ideas that describe how adults with LD are faring in employment settings, The three areas are (1) the experience of employees with LD, (2) employers' expectations of workers with LD, and (3) "goodness of fit" and supports in the workplace.
THE EXPERIENCE OF EMPLOYEES
Typically, adults with LD view their disability as an educational construct relevant to their K-12 years but not important to "life beyond school." Additionally, they see their after-school years as an opportunity to escape the stigma of having an LD and succeed in the workplace via a skill set that is more apropos to a specific job. The invisibility factor aids greatly in their thinking. In essence, they have the personal choice "to be LD or not be LD" (Price, Gerber, Mulligan, and Williams 2005).
With relatively little disclosure of LD in employment settings, the protections afforded by the ADA largely to gain access to reasonable accommodations--are absent (Price, Gerber, and Mulligan 2003). Part of the blame can be placed on secondary school-age programs that do not do an effective job of educating students with LD about the risks and rewards of utilizing the ADA (Price, Gerber, and Mulligan in press.) Since approximately 85 percent of students with LD go directly from school to work, the impact of this knowledge gap is difficult to overestimate.
While it is commonly known that people with LD are more likely to be unemployed than the general population of the United States, less well known is the problem of underemployment among individuals with LD. There are no hard data available, but anecdotal reports and interviews reveal that entry-level jobs often fall below (sometimes far below) the capabilities of individuals with LD, both cognitively and with respect to employability skills. This is thought to stem from the fact that learning disabilities are often equated with diminished competence or confused with mental retardation or autism, where adaptive ability is a significant issue. …