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Accommodations of Specific Disabilities Accommodations of Specific Disabilities

Working Effectively with People with Learning Disabilities

Original Date: July, 2001
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What is a Learning Disability?

The National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities describes the term “learning disability” as a general term referring to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, spelling, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical skills. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual, presumed to be caused by central nervous system dysfunction, and they exist throughout the person’s life. A learning disability is not a disorder that an individual "grows out of." It is a permanent disorder that has a significant effect on learning but is not an indicator of intelligence. An individual with a learning disability may develop compensatory skills that help them to overcome the disability.

Problems in self-regulatory behaviors, social perceptions, and social integration may exist with learning disabilities but do not, by themselves, constitute learning disabilities. Although learning disabilities may occur concomitantly with other disabilities, they are not the result of those conditions or influences.

Learning disabilities affect some 10% of the American workforce. As a result, many persons applying for work or currently employed by an employer will have learning disabilities. These individuals are often intelligent, creative and productive.

Learning disabilities can sometimes cause inconsistent work performance and may require reasonable accommodation. Some learning disabilities may have a global effect on functioning in the workplace. Other individuals may only need a reasonable accommodation for a specific task.

Some common learning disability terminology is listed below:

Dyslexia – difficulty with language processing, which, in turn, affects reading, writing, and spelling.
Dyspraxia – difficulty with fine motor skills and coordination.
Dysgraphia – difficulty with writing, spelling, and writing composition.
Auditory Discrimination – difficulty in perceiving differences between speech sounds and sequencing these sounds into meaningful words, which affects reading and spoken language.
Visual Discrimination – difficulty in noticing important details and assigning meaning to what is seen, which is critical to reading and writing.

What is the Impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act on People with Learning Disabilities?

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. The term disability under the ADA is defined as:

  1. a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual,
  2. a record of such an impairment or,
  3. being regarded as having such an impairment.

Learning disabilities are considered physical or mental impairments. The term “Specific Learning Disabilities” is cited in the regulations of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces the ADA, implementing the employment provisions of the ADA (29 C.F.R. Part 1630). “Substantially limits” means that the person is unable to perform, or significantly limited in the ability to perform, an activity as compared with an average person in the general population. “Major life activities” refers to functions such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.

Whether the ADA would protect a person with a learning disability from discrimination depends on whether the disability substantially limits a major life activity. For example, an employee whose auditory perception difficulties causes her to be unable to gain information from a staff meeting likely would have an ADA disability, especially where most employee would have little or no difficulty gaining relevant information from the meeting. By contrast, the inability to take excellent notes of a highly detailed, eight-hour technical discussion would not constitute a substantial impairment because the average person would also not be able to do this.

As the definition of disability makes plain, an employer also may not discrimination against an individual with a record of a disability or against someone perceived as disabled. For example, job applicants who have been through special education may not be discriminated against based on a school record of a disability. Similarly, employers also may not discriminate against applicants with learning disabilities because of a perception or fear that they cannot read.

An individual's limitations must be caused by a learning disability. Thus, an employee who is unable to read or write because he or she was never taught these skills, and not because of a learning disability, would not be an individual with a disability under the ADA.

Etiology of Learning Disabilities.

A learning disability is a developmental disorder that is usually present from birth, although it may go undetected until later in life. While genetic predisposition, perinatal injury, and various neurological or other medical conditions may be associated with the development of learning disabilities, the presence of such conditions does not invariably predict an eventual learning disability.

Some individuals with learning disabilities have no familial, medical, or environmental history that would predict a learning disorder.

Potential Functional Limitations Caused by Learning Disabilities.

Workers with learning disabilities may have difficulties with:

  • Processing auditory material (e.g. receiving oral directions and other communication issues)
  • Writing, including issues with spelling, grammar, and/or sentence structure; or expressing information in a written format; and/or legible handwriting.
  • Reasoning ability regarding the comprehension of novel information, quantitative information, or complex verbal information.
  • Reading speed or reading comprehension.

Workplace Accommodations for Individuals with Learning Disabilities.

Reasonable accommodations are by definition individualized in order to meet the needs of the specific applicant or employee. Some accommodations may include:

  • Alternative print formats
  • Reduced-distraction work environments
  • Computer technology for written work
  • Reading materials presented in auditory formats
  • Extended time to learn job tasks or to perform work
  • Instructions presented both in written and oral formats
  • Allowing the employee to tape-record important information
  • Clearly defined job requirements, including the dates when projects assignments are due; advance notice of any changes
  • Providing handouts and visual aids
  • Using more than one way to demonstrate or explain information
  • Breaking information into small steps when teaching many new tasks in one lesson (state objectives, review previous lesson, summarize periodically)
  • Allowing time for clarification of directions and essential information
  • Providing assistance with the proofreading of written work
  • Allowing the use of spell check and grammar-assistive devices

When in doubt about possible accommodations, ask the employee what would be helpful. In addition, remember to observe confidentiality. For example, avoid pointing out the employee or the alternative arrangements to the rest of the work group.

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