Learning difficulties in the workplace

Should candidates declare learning differences?

It is estimated that 15% of  employees have moderate learning difficulties.  Although many received support during their education, when they transition into the workplace, for most that support disappears,  although the issues regrettably don’t. I actually prefer the U.S. phrase “learning differences”, which covers a wide variety of challenges and should not to be confused with any intellectual cognitive impairment which is more severe. This might range from mild dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit disorders and short-term memory issues, through  to milder conditions on the autism spectrum.

Anything to declare?
For many candidates it’s hard to know where and when to declare these issues, or  whether to declare them at all.  Some companies list the conditions as   “disabilities ” on their application forms,  which many  applicants are reluctant  to admit, because they actually don’t believe  their condition is disabling. Or they fear that it will be held against them in the recruitment process. In many cases it will depend on the type of job being applied for and the severity of the problem – if there are health and safety risks involved (ciphering chemical symbols for example, might be challenging for someone with dyslexia) or if the condition can impact on the job performance with more serious consequences.

According to the British Dyslexia Association being up front can be most useful in the long-term,  particularly if job descriptions change and lead to more report writing and greater organisational demands,  as these may need to be supported by assistive software and strategy training. There may also be (dyslexia unfriendly) tests for promotion.

Poor performance may be dyslexia related and can lead to stress which impacts performance even further. So another reason for being open,  but possibly after an offer has been received to ensure that all channels of support can be available and there are no later accusations of lack of transparency.

As cruel as school
Workplaces can be as cruel as school. One client told me how a report he had written containing some spelling mistakes and word confusion ( caught/court, assistance/ assistants, bear/bare) was circulated on an ” all company” email circulation list. Rather than supporting this employee,  he was made an object of ridicule for almost a year,  bringing back a childhood stammer,  which he had over come 20 years before.  ” Spell check is no use at all for anyone with dyslexia ”  Tom told me   “all the words look the same to us”

Kara Tointon  a British actress, herself  suffering from dyslexia made an excellent documentary ” Don’t call me Stupid”  charting her own  struggles. It really is worth watching.  Here is an extract.

Although many adults with learning differences develop sophisticated coping and cover up strategies for dealing with these challenges (quite often avoidance),  the best way is to accept and confront the conditions and to make use of some of the many tools and supports services that exist.


  • Assistive technology: voice-activated software, text-reading software
  • text-to-speech and scanning tools
  • organization of work areas on to improve the reading of  VDU with appropriate fonts and colours
  • support on a one-to-one basis setting realistic deadlines, organising workloads, clearly marking deadlines etc.
  • Structured admin patterns including written lists, to cope with a host of multiple verbal instructions.
  • Provision of a dictaphone.
  • Find a proof reading ( non -dyslexic)  peer.

Many famous people have dyslexia –  Tom Cruise,  Steve Jobs, Einstein,  Winston Churchill, Walt Disney, Leonardo da Vinci, Richard Branson and Thomas Edison to name but a few! And we all know what kind of careers they enjoyed!

If you are coping with a moderate learning difference in the workplace, don’t remain isolated. Most geographies offer support, please check out your local areas.


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