|Vol. 10, No. 3 Summer/Fall 2002||
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In the Workplace: Learning Disabilities
Learning disabilities (LD) are neurological disorders that interfere with a person's ability to store, process, or produce information. The causes are unknown, but the effects on performance can be profound, despite the fact that individuals with learning disabilities generally have average or above average intelligence. Learning disabilities can affect a person's ability to read, write, speak, or compute math, and can also impede social skills and development. Performance can be inconsistent, with marked difficulties shown on certain types of tasks, but above average performance on others (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2002).
Learning disabilities are primarily thought to be a school-related issue. This is understandable since common learning-related problems such as dyslexia are usually first identified in early grade levels. Improved screening and better awareness on the part of teachers has resulted in identifying as many as six to ten percent of students as having some form of learning disability (U.S. Department of Education, 2000). There are over 2.8 million school-aged children who receive special education services each year for learning disabilities (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2002). Other students with LD are not formally identified; they get by with assistance from regular education teachers or learn to adapt as best they can.
What about implications in the workplace? The common misconception is that this is only an academic problem, not a lifelong concern, but learning disabilities do not go away after graduation. The Foundation for Children With Learning Disabilities (2001) estimates that there are at least six million adults with learning disabilities. Many are underemployed and are passed over for advancement. Many select manual or physical work that requires little reading or comprehension of complex information. Since employers are generally not very aware of potential LD issues, functional deficits can create job performance problems after individuals are hired.
Is assistive technology the answer?
Learning disabilities, which are often subtle, hidden disabilities, are not one of the first disability areas where assistive technology resources would be considered. In the past ten years, there has been increasing awareness of the benefit of technology as a tool to help deal with specific functional needs. One of the interesting developments is the recognition that some technologies developed for other applications may also be useful to people with learning disabilities. OCR (optical character recognition) reading systems are a good example. These tools were developed to enable persons who could not see text to be able to listen to it. This technology has proven to be effective in dealing with functional problems of persons with learning disabilities.
Here are a few applications of other technology that might address LD needs in the workplace:
- Scanning Technology that quickly copies text into a computer can reduce
problems with document handling and inputting text information.
- Spell and Grammar Checkers are standard features in word processing software
that are commonly used in writing and creating documents. These features
will not teach someone to spell correctly, but they can reduce problems faced
by someone with dyslexia.
- Portable Reading Pens scan text to catch spelling and vocabulary errors
when individuals are not working on a computer.
- Memory Aids, such as the popular personal digital assistants (PDA), can
help with attention deficit problems or simply be used as an organizational
aid to plan work activities.
- Speech Recognition technology, or even a simple tape recorder, can alleviate
problems with writing for persons with dysgraphia.
- Graphics and Icon-Based Referencing can help people with some types of
LD manage text-based information and navigate through information, such as
on web sites. For example, many fast-food restaurants have cash registers
that use icons to improve overall efficiency and reduce errors.
- Calculators can help with problems of dyscalculia that impact math skills,
such as change making and money management.
- Low-tech Accommodations such as color-coding of files or items, use of
day planners and monthly calendars and similar organizational tools can help
in many situations
Technology specialists that are familiar with LD issues can work with rehabilitation counselors to analyze work tasks and determine specific problem areas that an employee may have. Technology specialists may also be useful if involved early in the rehabilitation process so that their knowledge of possible accommodations can help employees look beyond previous academic frustrations when formulating their vocational plans.
For more information on learning disabilities:
National Center for Learning Disabilities
Comprehensive resource on LD
School-oriented site that also offers interesting discussion boards for possible work-related applications
Special Public Broadcasting look at learning disabilities that focuses on students with LD, but has relevant content to relate to work issues. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/misunderstoodminds/
This material was provided by Tech Connections, a project funded by a grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the Department of Education. For more information, visit www.techconnections.org
In the Workplace: Learning Disabilities