Skip to Main Content
by SUE SHELLENBARGER | March 10, 2009


John Brennan, who has dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, was a hard-working student in high school, earning B's and C's with the help of special accommodations, such as extra assistance reading his test questions.

But entering the workplace after graduation was a shock. Mr. Brennan says he enrolled in a training program to service luxury cars, but he was criticized for "holding the class back" and dismissed. Then he joined an auto-repair shop that promised him training, but says the shop sidetracked him instead into a dead-end job. Fed up with trying to work for other people, Mr. Brennan says he has enrolled in junior college near his Acton, Mass., home, with plans to start his own business.

Amid rapid growth in diagnoses of learning disabilities and special-education programs to address them, more young adults are entering the workplace with known learning differences and a history of receiving accommodations. But few employers have adapted training or job expectations for workers with learning disabilities. The lack of special accommodations has meant a rude awakening for many young workers, fueling on-the-job tensions and a rising tide of discrimination complaints.

While the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act entitles some workers with disabilities to job accommodations such as a quieter workspace, it doesn't require employers to offer the same broad services schools must provide learning-disabled pupils under federal law. Under the ADA, employers aren't required to make accommodations if it would inflict "undue hardship" on the business. Employers don't have to eliminate essential job duties or create new jobs. The law provides no protection if an employee is deemed unqualified, a definition that varies based on the job.

"The boss-employee relationship is very different from the teacher-student relationship," says Dale S. Brown, an author and advocate for people with learning disabilities.

To be sure, many employers aren't aware of employees' learning disabilities or don't know how to accommodate them. Also, some employees have an undue sense of entitlement. Attorney Patricia H. Latham of Washington, D.C., tells of a client with ADD who kept arriving at work late. "They're angry with me, and I don't think they should be, because that's part of my problem," the woman said and asked Ms. Latham to write her bosses a letter. Ms. Latham refused, telling the woman, "your employer doesn't have to put up with your being late to work." Instead, she suggested making a habit of arriving early, leaving a margin for error.

Such tensions are fueling discrimination complaints. Claims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and state and local agencies that cite "learning disability" as one basis for alleged discrimination rose 74% from 1993 to 2003, according to an analysis of EEOC data by Cornell University's Employment and Disability Institute.

Also, unemployment among people with learning disabilities remains stubbornly high. A 2006 federal study of 11,000 youth who received special-education services in school shows only 40% are employed a year or two after high-school graduation, compared with 63% of same-age young adults in the general population.

While no reliable data on learning disabilities in the work force exist, about 4.4%, or 7.5 million, of adults ages 21 through 64 have lasting mental disabilities of some kind that impair learning, remembering or concentrating, says a Cornell University analysis of Census data.

In the past, many learning disabilities such as ADD, dyslexia, mild autistic conditions, memory disorders and other problems went undiagnosed. Workers typically hid their impairments, avoided jobs that exposed them or suffered from misperceptions that they were lazy or stupid. But now that more people are recognizing that they have learning disabilities, says Susanne Bruyere, director of the Employment and Disability Institute at Cornell University, many are "also more confident" in asking for accommodations.

The fact that learning disabilities often can't be seen tends to make employers less sympathetic than they might be to someone with an obvious impairment. "We think it's heroic when a person with one leg climbs a mountain. But when a dyslexic works 70 hours a week to do a 40-hour-a-week job," co-workers think he's inefficient, Ms. Brown says.

If a learning disability starts to interfere with your job, Ms. Latham recommends acting promptly. "Don't allow a period of poor performance," she says and advises explaining your disability with confidence, providing documentation and requesting the accommodations you need. Most accommodations, such as providing written instructions, cost employers little or nothing.

The best solution is to find a job where a learning disability doesn't hurt your performance -- or even enhances it. Jaime Gomez, a Texas customer-service worker, says he hasn't told his current supervisors about his ADD, because "you don't know what kind of reaction you'll get." But his position is such a good fit that it doesn't matter. After several job changes, he found a post that requires only a few hours a day of desk work, with the rest spent traveling to see an ever-changing list of regional customers. He loves the work, he says.


Filed Under: Workplace Issues

Want to be found by top employers? Upload Your Resume

Join Gold to Unlock Company Reviews