HR · 2 October 2019

How to support employees with learning difficulties

learning from mistakes

In mainstream workplaces, learning difficulties do not always manifest themselves in ‘the physical.’ They can be subtle – so subtle in fact, that employers may not have realised they’ve hired someone with a learning difficulty until later, and only when the person is struggling to complete a task.

In recruitment and job-searching culture, it’s up to the employee to disclose whether they have a learning difficulty or not. After all, you can’t see a learning difficulty – right? But first, what is a learning difficulty, and how does it differ from a learning disability?

The differences…

Learning difficulties do not impair a person’s cognitive functions.

Employees can be private about their learning difficulties because they are different from learning disabilities. Firstly they don’t affect a person’s ability to undertake tasks.

In fact, employees with learning difficulties do not have impaired intelligence, whereas a learning disability can affect a person’s cognitive skills, making it more difficult for this group of people to work in a ‘traditional office’ alongside cognitively average people.

An example of learning difficulty conditions include dyslexia, (problems with reading, writing and spelling),  dyspraxia, (problems with physical coordination), and dyscalculia (problems with numeracy, also known as ‘number blindness’).

Sufferers have potential

Again, while the above conditions might make it harder for people to learn in certain ways, such as through reading or arithmetic, it doesn’t affect their overall cognitive capacities that various learning disabilities, such as Down Syndrome or Autism, do.

In short, sufferers of learning difficulties still have the ability ‘learn and develop’, (which is vital for any employees working in any mainstream business and office environment), they just require different strategies to do it.

They bring great skills to the table

Before employers get put off hiring people with learning difficulties, (should they be informed about them at interview stage), then think again.

For not only would doing so be a discriminatory move, but there’s also evidence that people with learning difficulties can be highly intelligent, and employers wouldn’t want to miss out on hiring intelligent candidates just because of a label, would they?

Don’t be scared of the symptoms…

Research from the London School of Economics suggests that common symptoms of people with dyslexia, such as their impaired reading ability, are often exaggerated in their severity, concluding that although their reading can be “slightly slow” they are otherwise “competent.”

Neither should employers expect a diagnosed dyspraxic, (people with poor physical coordination), to be falling down all over the office.

The LSE research similarly claims that too much emphasis has been put on a dyspraxic sufferer’s ‘lack of motor coordination.’ The findings go on to say that by the time these people become adults, and thus enter the world of work, they have largely improved on their physical balance and relative coordination on their own, as a coping mechanism. – Humans are resilient creatures after all.

What these candidates look like

1. A dyslexic

  • Good verbal and reasoning abilities
  • Challenges with: short term memory and ‘word awareness,’ (including literacy and syllable formation, also known as phonological awareness).

2. A dyspraxic

  • Often display innovative and creative thinking, known for abilities in the creative industries, music and languages.
  • By having specific areas of weakness, they tend to have even stronger talents elsewhere
  • Challenges with: sensory sensitivity (commonly noisy environments or brightly lit spaces), difficulty operating office equipment, (related to motor-coordination issues), and difficulty interpreting information from different sources

How to support employees with these conditions

Here’s what employers can do to get the most out of their staff with learning difficulties.

Sufferers from these conditions can also experience feelings of low-confidence and self-esteem, but this isn’t endemic in these people. Such feelings are a result of a culture of silence around these learning difficulties – including a lack of awareness about their manifestations and effects on people.

Lack of discussion breeds diminished confidence

By and large, this lack of knowledge and understanding is perpetuated by people that don’t suffer from them. And this is often done unknowingly.

If learning difficulties are not widely discussed and supported openly in office environments, (as they should be everywhere else) it shouldn’t be surprising that employees guard their conditions, then feel anxious and stressed when they’re tasked with something at work that could mean their symptoms flare-up.

It could affect your office productivity

That’s why dyspraxics, in particular, tend to get anxious or experience low confidence when they’re given more responsibility at work, especially if they know this means they’ll have to confront one of their challenges, (whether that’s more organisational challenges, managing people, or dealing with more information).

Start being inclusive about learning difficulties

A way to decrease feelings of unease in these members of staff is to create open and honest discussions about these conditions within the entire company and when onboarding new staff.

Take this new initiative as you would with any diversity and inclusion programme. Begin by stating your openness and support of candidates with neurodiverse conditions such as dyspraxia and dyslexia on your website and in job postings, even mention it during interviews.

Help to educate your entire team

You should also encourage workshops and ‘lunch and learn’ sessions about these conditions, including encouraging willing employees to come forward and present their own perspectives on living and working with their condition(s). This should increase understanding and tolerance across teams, including clarity on how people work in different ways.

Also, encourage these employees to work in a flexible way, make sure you and your managers don’t force all staff to work in a particular paradigm. Sufferers have already learned to find creative ways to learn and develop around their condition, so encouraging a ‘one-way fits all approach’ will only cause reduced productivity and higher levels of stress in these employees.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Annie May is the Features Editor at Real Business and Business Advice. Following her graduation from LSE, she embarked upon a freelance career in current affairs journalism. Annie has written on subjects varying from African history and contemporary politics to community business and current affairs news in London. At Real Business and Business Advice, Annie is passionate about highlighting inclusive and diverse business disruptors and organisations for our evolving readership. Annie believes in fostering community inclusion and has volunteered for organisations such as Fairfield House, a UK based Rastafari centre and a senior citizen association for ethnic minority men and women.

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