The 36-year-old security guard continues to stay underground at work because he doesn't believe employers will support a worker with a hidden impairment like attention deficit disorder. "For somebody who is in a wheelchair or blind," employers might provide accommodations, says Mr. Edmonston, who has lost a string of retail and service jobs. "But not for somebody like me."
As the growing number of students diagnosed with learning disorders such as dyslexia, ADD and cognitive processing impairments enter the work force, some say they are experiencing serial firings and layoffs. My recent column on a related topic drew a torrent of email from such employees who had lost many jobs. While no one measures firings among workers with learning disorders, several attorneys I interviewed said complaints about it are on the rise.
Caught in limbo between a fear of being stigmatized, and the risk that their disorders will hurt their job performance unless they receive accommodations, many try to hide their impairments at work. But the strategy often backfires, getting them fired anyway because of performance problems linked to their impairments. If they disclose their disorders at that point, "employers generally look at that as an excuse," says David Deratzian, a Bethlehem, Pa., attorney and co-chairman of the disability-rights committee of the National Employment Lawyers Association.
More employers might accommodate such workers if they asked before they started having problems on the job, says David Fram, director, National Employment Law Institute, a Denver nonprofit that provides training to employers. In his seminars, managers often ask what to do about "individuals with learning disabilities who are performing badly," he says.
Experts describe the pattern as a Catch-22. "One of the hidden costs is underemployment," says Paul Gerber, an education professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va., who has studied the topic extensively. Many rely on family members or job coaches for support. The pattern also calls for a new, more proactive strategy for communicating about learning disorders on the job.
Some people with learning impairments become highly successful by "finding a niche, a specific area where they can excel," says Gary Phelan, a Stamford, Conn., attorney and author on disability-rights issues. JetBlue Airways CEO David Neeleman, whose ADD wasn't diagnosed until adulthood, did poorly in school and was once fired from a vice president's job at Southwest Airlines because he lacked diplomacy. Mostly, though, he has managed to make his restless workstyle an asset; "I've realized the importance of surrounding myself with knowledgeable people" who can attend to the details he misses, Mr. Neeleman says through a spokesman. His weekly flights on JetBlue planes, talking to customers and cleaning cabins, have become emblematic of an emphasis on quality. A few years ago, he even hired at JetBlue the Southwest manager who had axed him.
Many workers fall back on family members for help, says Joseph Madaus, assistant professor of educational psychology at University of Connecticut. In the interest of full disclosure, I have a son, 16, who has minor learning disabilities.
Cleveland attorney Bob Chernett hired his stepson, an accountant with ADD, as a receptionist after he was fired from several jobs, to provide some coaching. His stepson has many skills but tended to miss social cues or interrupt co-workers, Mr. Chernett says. He often had no idea why he'd been fired.
Mr. Chernett taught him to communicate more by succinct emails. Also, he showed him how to pick up on co-workers' signals that they needed to be left alone. After a year of coaching, "he was much more prepared to work in an office and know the proper decorum." Mr. Chernett says.
Dr. Gerber urges these workers to seek what he calls "goodness of fit" -- a job that suits their personality and abilities, at an employer with a proven ability to integrate workers with disabilities. Law firm Baker Botts, where managing partner Walt Smith has a cognitively disabled son, encourages all its U.S. offices to employ workers with a variety of disabilities and trains supervisors in making accommodations.
A more proactive way of communicating about learning impairments on the job can also help. Workers should describe their disorder in a succinct, factual way, then quickly move on to describe exactly what they need, Dr. Gerber says. For example: "I have a learning disability, and that means I have problems adding up columns of numbers. But all I need is a different calculator and a little more time to complete these reports." This helps prevent the listener from thinking the disability is more severe than it is.
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