Learning disabilities and safe work

Employers have to accommodate learning disabilities, mitigate the risk

If employees can’t understand safety materials, they aren’t getting the safety message.

Safety is one of the roles employers have to plan for in disability accommodation assessments, including those for people with learning disabilities, said Shana French, a lawyer with Sherrard Kuzz in Toronto.

“Its due diligence,” she said.

If an employer knows there might be issues preventing employees from reading the postings or communicating concerns, whether it be due to a learning disability or another literacy issue, they have to do something about it.

“You want to know your employees understand their rights and obligations, you can’t just do it pro forma by posting things and saying job done,” said French.

Employers should be aware that learning disabilities can be a barrier to an employee’s comprehension of important safety issues.

It’s a barrier that can and does result in in workplace injuries.

A 2009 study from the Institute for Work and Health (IWH) found young people with dyslexia were 2.7 times more likely to be injured on the job than those without a learning disability.

Even after taking into account other factors that could explain a higher injury rate, such as being male, out of school or working a manual labour job, young people with dyslexia were still 1.9 times more likely to be hurt on the job, the study found.

Originally the idea for the study was to look at a range of learning disabilities, with dyslexia being one type  of learning disability included in the research, said Curtis Breslin, a researcher with the IWH based in Toronto.

“The idea being that we knew that young people were at high risk for work injuries in general,” he said. “Then we found before this study that people who were dropping out of high school were at particularly high risk for work injury.”

As a clinical psychologist, Breslin said he knew one of the common reasons for people to drop out of high school is a learning disability.

“That’s what motivated the idea for looking specifically at learning disabilities,” he said.

The survey  the study drew its data from had respondents identify whether they had attention deficit disorder, dyslexia or another learning disability. Dyslexia, or a reading disability as it is commonly called, is probably the most common type of learning disability, Breslin said.

What was interesting about the study was it showed not all learning disabilities mean an elevated risk for injury, said Breslin.

“In terms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), they did show an elevated risk for work injury, but when we took into account or controlled for the types of jobs that they were doing that seemed to explain their elevated risk,” he said.

“There was some kind of excess risk that we couldn’t explain for dyslexia that we could explain for people with ADHD.”

What the employer does to accommodate a learning disability in the workplace should depend on what learning disability an employee identifies as having and what issues the disability presents in relation to safety.

“It depends on why there’s that excess risk for people with a reading disability,” he said. “Is it because they’re not comprehending the oral instructions that they’re getting from their supervisors? Are there safety reading materials that they’re not able to comprehend?”

The study did not include any research into what specific issues related to dyslexia meant more injuries for those who had the disability.

“We can only speculate on what the reasons are for their excess risk,” he said. “All we know from the survey is they do have some excess risk.”

A first step for employers when an employee identifies herself as having a learning disability  to be cognizant of what safety issues the specific learning disabilities may present. The goal for employers should be to make safety programs accessible to all, said Breslin.

“People where English is a second language, they also have literacy issues,” said Breslin. “So thinking more broadly about literacy in the workplace is another take home message from what we found here.

“The idea of making things more understandable for everyone is probably going to take care of a lot of different literacy issues.”
Breslin teaches at Seneca College in Toronto. In this role as an instructor he finds there is an emphasis on universal design, or using multiple modes of presentation to get the message across to students, he said.

“Ultimately (learning disabilities are a) kind of a different learning style,” he said. “There’s a kind of variety and continuum of learning styles, that we need to accommodate.”

This kind of teaching is front and centre in the  education system right now, he said.

“That’s the other take home message,” he said. “There’s ideas in the education system that seem to just fall off the map when it comes to people graduating and going into the workplace.”

By applying a more universal design strategy in the workplace, employers might be better off, he said.

And learning disabilities are not just a safety concern. They can also cause legal issues if employers are not accommodating properly, said French.
An employer has the duty to accommodate any disability to the point of undue hardship, she said.

Where legal issues often arise with learning disabilities is in the areas of job candidacy or promotions, she said.

She cites the example of a worker on the shop floor who has the opportunity to be a forklift operator but would need to train and get his certificate.

If his learning disability prevents him from reading or writing, employers have to ensure it doesn’t affect his ability to be a candidate for promotion. In this case it might be appropriate to administer an oral test, she said.
“We always say to employers be flexible, be creative, don’t start with no,” she said.

This duty will be heightened  Ontario when the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act comes into effect in 2012. The changes in Ontario law puts a spotlight on what an employer is doing in terms of the access for  individuals with disabilities and making sure the playing field is leveled, said French.

To read the full story, login below.

Not a subscriber?

Start your subscription today!