learning disabilities in the workplace: how to support your employees.

Though learning disabilities are often framed as a childhood issue, there is currently no known cure for them. Having a learning disability is a life-long condition and many adults face issues stemming from their learning disability well into adulthood. Currently, just under 5% of children in Canada are diagnosed with a learning disability. The total number of Canadians who have a learning disability is difficult to discern, as many people who have them go through life without receiving a diagnosis. 

Though many people with learning disabilities go on to have long and fulfilling careers, that’s not the case for everyone. A learning disability can make it more difficult for some people to find work and hold on to steady employment. That’s not to say that people with learning disabilities aren’t capable of working. People who have learning disabilities are typically of average or higher intelligence and extremely capable of performing most jobs given the right tools and support. 

People who have learning disabilities often experience a significant gap between what they’re capable of and their achievements due to lack of support in their workplace. As an employer, it’s important to ensure you’re offering all the right tools and accommodations for your employees with disabilities to ensure they’re maximizing their potential.

accommodating learning disabilities at work

what are learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities are genetic or neurobiological factors that impact the cognitive processes related to learning. Because those with learning disabilities appear otherwise normal, they’re sometimes referred to as ‘hidden disabilities.’ A learning disability can impact someone’s ability to learn basic skills such as reading, writing and math, and impact traits such as organization, abstract reasoning, short-term memory and attention span. Learning disabilities should not be confused with physical disabilities, such as being deaf or visually impaired, or issues stemming from emotional trauma or socio-economic disadvantages. People are typically born with learning disabilities and do not develop them. Here are a few examples of learning disabilities:

  • dyslexia - Impacts reading and language-processing skills
  • dysgraphia - Impacts a person’s handwriting and fine motor skills
  • dyscalculia - Impacts a person’s ability to understand numbers and math concepts
  • non-verbal - Impacts a person’s ability to read and understand non-verbal cues like body language and facial expressions

current laws in canada

In 2012, Canada’s Supreme Court unanimously issued a ruling that a student with a learning disability had the legal right to receive an education that gave him the opportunity to ‘develop his full potential,’ and that to do otherwise constituted discrimination. Though the ruling related to education, it validated that learning disabilities are, in fact, disabilities under the law. The ruling also emphasized the importance of providing ‘meaningful access’ to opportunities for people with learning disabilities and rejected a one-size-fits-all approach to disability. For employers, this precedent also applies. Employers must make reasonable accommodations to support employees with learning disabilities and ensure they have the tools and support needed to perform their job.

how to support employees with learning disabilities

use technology

Technology can be a powerful tool to support people who have learning disabilities, including at work. For instance, for someone who has trouble with writing and spelling, integrating spellcheck tools into your work software lessens the burden of worrying they’ve made a critical mistake. For someone who struggles with math concepts, having the option to use technology to perform critical calculations can be a lifesaver. Thinking about accessibility and making your tools as user-friendly as possible is important.

provide a safety net

Living with a learning disability can cause some employees to have anxiety about whether their work lives up to expectations. Though people with learning disabilities are typically very intelligent and capable of performing many jobs, there are some tasks they may struggle with. For instance, someone with a non-verbal learning disability may have an excellent mind for business, but struggle with client meetings because they’re unable to read their body language. Providing alternative tasks or a work partner who’s available for support and collaboration on these tasks can help. Simply having a work culture focused on collaboration and teamwork can help cover any gaps in all your employees’ expertise.

provide voice and video instructions

If you use instructional training materials, have them available in more than one format to ensure accessibility. (Don’t forget to include subtitles and audio descriptions for other types of disabilities, as well!) Some people are better at visual learning (video), others prefer written instruction (manuals) and some people learn best with live, in-person training. Try to have a mix of different formats in your onboarding and training materials to cater to different types of learners. Repeat important messages often to ensure they’re memorable. Also, most importantly, be willing to adapt training in response to employees’ expressed needs.

eliminate tests

Some employers like to use written tests and performance reviews to grade employees’ skills, because they believe these tests are objective and eliminate biases. Unfortunately, many types of skill assessments put people with learning disabilities at a disadvantage. People with learning disabilities often perform poorly on written or timed tests. Test results are not an accurate reflection of their skills and abilities in a workplace setting. You’re much better off assessing your employees’ skills holistically, in-action to understand what they’re capable of.

create structured processes

Building a routine and putting in place structured processes generally makes it easier for people with learning disabilities to complete tasks that are challenging for them. The repetition of walking through a detailed step-by-step process builds confidence and ensures that nothing important is missed or forgotten. This makes it easier for people with learning disabilities to feel confident in their abilities.

allow everyone to work at their own pace

Permit your employees sufficient time to work at their own pace. This is the best way to ensure everyone turns in high-quality work. Setting arbitrary deadlines or tracking how employees spend every minute of their time is counterproductive. Not only does this create an unhealthy and micromanaged workplace, it can unnecessarily punish employees with disabilities that may take slightly longer to perform some tasks.

offer ongoing training and support

Focus on building confidence and familiarity. For people with learning disabilities, anxiety about their abilities is common, and changes to their routine can exacerbate their concerns. You can alleviate some mental stress by simply offering support and being understanding about your employees’ needs and preferences. When changes need to be made to processes or work habits, offer training materials and guidance from leaders to ease into the changes and ensure that everyone understands what needs to be done and how their work will be impacted.

interested in learning more about disability in the workplace? check out our blog for more articles on how you can build a more diverse and inclusive workplace.

check out related content