Learning disabilities limit jobs

Focus on strengths, accommodate weaknesses

In the 1970s, very little was known about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). When Kevin Myers was in high school, he couldn’t sit still for more than 30 minutes. His teachers wouldn’t let him get up and walk around, so he would find ways to get himself sent to the principal’s office so he could take a walk.

Eventually his father told the vice-principal Myers would be a good student if the teachers just gave him the chance to stretch his legs when he needed it.

Myers, who is now the president of Ottawa-based HyperActive Productions, understands his own weaknesses, so during meetings he tells clients he needs to get up and do a couple of laps around the board table.

“I just let people know up front that this is going to happen,” he said.

Mike Hicks, who had worked for the CBC and ran his own production company for 10 years, joined Myers as his vice-president of creative and strategic services. Hicks has attention deficit disorder (ADD) and has always struggled with math and time management. When he ran his own business he produced high-quality work, but he rarely got anything done on time. Eventually the clients who loved his work, but couldn’t deal with the missed deadlines, left him. He realized his poor time management skills were hurting his business.

“If it’s late, it’s no good,” said Hicks.

But after Hicks and Myers teamed up, Myers, who loves to organize and manage people, but isn’t creative, ensured Hicks met all his deadlines and let Hicks focus on being creative. All the clients Hicks had lost came back and the company now does social marketing, public service announcements and branding for some of Canada’s largest organizations including the United Way and the Children’s Wish Foundation.

“We’re the ideal yin and yang combination,” said Hicks. “The basis for what we do is an understanding that in any organization you have people with great strengths and weaknesses. We focus on compensating strengths.”

About 10 per cent of Canadians have some form of learning disability, which shouldn’t be confused with intellectual disabilities. By definition, someone with a learning disability has an average or above average IQ, but has a specific learning impairment.

A new study by the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC), Putting a Canadian Face on Learning Disabilities, takes a look at data from Statistics Canada. It found only 61.3 per cent of people with a learning disability were employed in 2001, compared to 75.7 per cent of people without a learning disability. Also, those who are employed tend to earn less.

“Many of them go through the merry-go-round of hiring and firing,” said Claudette Larocque, LDAC project and information officer.

This is partly because people with learning disabilities are twice as likely to not graduate from high school. But it’s also because many people with learning disabilities don’t understand what their strengths and weaknesses are, so they aren’t going after jobs that take advantage of their strengths while asking for accommodations for their weaknesses, said Larocque.

Because there are so many different kinds of learning disabilities — usually involving problems with reading, math, auditory processing or visual processing — the onus, unfortunately, rests on the individual to know his weaknesses and what kind of accommodation he needs. Without a proper assessment, this can be next to impossible, said Larocque.

Unfortunately organizations, such as ATN in London, Ont., and the Alder Centre in Toronto, that provide assessments and employment-based recommendations regarding strengths and weaknesses, are few and far between, she said.

“These individuals can do the job, there are just certain tasks that they have difficulties in and that’s where they need accommodation,” she said. “It’s crucial to understand your learning disability and how it impacts you. For many people out there, they don’t know.”

Myers and Hicks aren’t the only ones at HyperActive with learning disabilities and Myers makes a point of getting to know all of his employees so he can understand their strengths and weaknesses.

“Once you get in their heads, you get more out of them in three hours than you do in three weeks,” said Myers. “I really know my people and I know how much I can push them.”

One of the employees has problems dealing with distractions and doesn’t work well with a lot of other people around, so Myers made sure he had his own work space, separate from other employees.

“It’s a lot quieter so he gets a lot more work done,” said Myers.

While there are many different types of learning disabilities, all with different impairments, the following chart looks at some common disabilities, their impairments and suggested accommodations.

Type of disabilityType of impairmentTypes of accommodation
ReadingDifficulty reading and processing information; difficulty writing; poor spelling and grammar Text to speech and speech to text software; grammar and spelling software; provide auditory records of meetings and presentations.
Mathematics (Dyscalculia)Difficulty with math concepts, including time and spaceTalking calculators; mentors for financial tasks
Visual processingDifficulty separating out different visual stimuli. For example, won't be able to find a stapler on a desk with 10 other items; difficulty understanding charts and graphsProvide reports and meeting notes ahead of time to allow more time to process information, preferably in electronic format.
Auditory processingDifficulty filtering auditory stimulation, background noise often overpowers conversations and affects concentrationNoise-cancelling headphones; meet in quiet offices, not out in cubicles; provide a quiet workspace when there are deadlines

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