Adults With Learning Disabilities in the Workplace

Learning disabilities include a range of neurological disorders that impact how an individual’s brain processes information.1 These disorders can affect skills such as reading, writing, speaking, recalling, and reasoning.

Prior to special education programs set forth by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), many students with learning disabilities were stigmatized, labeled as “slow,” “mentally disabled,” or “lazy.” It was not uncommon for these students to be denied education, or not graduate from high school or continue on to postsecondary education.

Many adults with learning disabilities were never diagnosed and did not receive appropriate instruction for their disabilities.3 This can result in a lack of training, self-confidence, and an inability to leverage their strengths to increase their odds of success in the workplace.

While learning disabilities can present challenges for adults in the workplace, there are potential advantages as well as steps adults can take to their manage difficulties. Focusing on strengths can help minimize stigma, but also foster confidence and self-esteem.

Strengths

Learning disabilities are experienced different ways depending on type. Having any learning disability as a child often prompts adults to develop skills that people without learning disabilities may lack.

For example, they may have learned how to work around their difficulties, seek out answers from experts, or come up with new ways to meet their goals.

Many adults with learning disabilities have strengths in common, including:

  • They are often creative problem-solvers.
  • Their skills in non-disability areas are just as strong as, or better than, other adults.
  • They are frequently resourceful and can use and adapt materials and processes in creative ways.
  • They may have stronger-than-average strengths in such areas as spatial reasoning, “big-picture” thinking, and empathy

Depending on personal goals and abilities, people with learning disabilities can become business leaders and entrepreneurs, and more. A willingness to think outside of the box can lead to the development of new, marketable ideas and products. Their unique strengths make them exceedingly successful in certain career areas.

A 2008 study that surveyed adults with learning disabilities found that respondents reported high overall levels of job satisfaction, which was linked to a strong sense of self-efficacy.

Challenges

Having any type of disability can create difficulties and learning disabilities can be particularly challenging because they are often invisible. Feelings of inadequacy that start in childhood can continue to create problems in adulthood.

Feelings of inadequacy can be exacerbated by:

  • Lack of understanding and support from employers
  • A difficulty with promotion and advancement opportunities
  • The likelihood of only being offered low-paying jobs
  • Lack of assistive technology or adaptive equipment at work
  • Lack of technology to provide access to continuing education courses and reading materials

In the same 2008 study, researchers found that while 73% of respondents felt that their learning disability had an impact on their job, only 55% disclosed their disability to their employer and a mere 12% requested accommodations.

Resources That Can Help

While adults may struggle with their learning disabilities, many can thrive with appropriate support systems in the workplace. Self-advocacy is a critical skill that helps ensure that support is present.

It’s also important to know where to turn for training, financial resources, job coaching, and other supports that are available through state and federal agencies.

  • Learn your rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), laws under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
  • Contact your state or local office for vocational rehabilitation.
  • Reach out to non-profit organizations for information, and find out how to develop a support network of other adults with learning disabilities and advocates.
  • Take advantage of local public service agencies that offer to tutor in the area of learning disabilities.
  • Learn how to deal with discrimination in the workplace.