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The Challenge of Starting a New Job With Learning Disabilities

I am 27 and I didn’t realize I had learning disabilities until the last couple of years. Don’t get me wrong — that doesn’t mean I’ve always had an easy time learning new things or processing information, but rather that I strongly masked and compensated for my difficulties.

It was very validating for a neuropsychologist to tell me that I have specific learning disability in math, also known as dyscalculia, as well as nonverbal learning disability (also known as a learning disability that involves issues with spatial processing, fine motor coordination, and more). I also was tested by a developmental audiologist and seen to have central auditory processing disorder. Last but not least, while it is not technically a learning disability, I was also officially diagnosed with ADHD, primarily inattentive type.

Now, fast forward to my life today. While I am in graduate school for creative writing, I had taken some time off of working a job because of my mental health conditions, with symptoms of bipolar disorder and complex PTSD flaring up. Now that I have engaged in further treatment and am stabilized, I have decided to take on a part-time job, as mentally I know I am able.

The challenge now lies with not so much my mental health, but my neurodivergence, my learning disabilities, the way in which my brain thinks and functions differently than the majority.

So far, during my job training, I have practiced mindfulness in an effort to not only boost my concentration, but also to reduce anxiety. This has helped a lot.

I am actively trying not to feel self-conscious of my “differences,” of the fact that I process information slower than most, have to repeat things out loud to myself to learn, have trouble “hearing” (or so it appears; in reality, I just have trouble processing auditory information). I have politely asked to have directions and demonstrations repeated and so far this has been no issue.

Aside from attention/focus and auditory and visual processing, my other issue so far has been math-related challenges: working a cash register. Many might think that because I have a college degree, that something like making change and handing it to a customer wouldn’t be a big deal (I am not a fan of such assumptions, as education level is no true indicator of how smart or capable someone is). Well, they would be wrong about that. I have had many challenges so far with this in training because of my math learning disability, dyscalculia. In the past I would’ve been embarrassed, my anxiety revving up, when being called out for making seemingly simple errors. However, today I laugh it off and apologize politely, trying my hardest to learn from each mistake.

I also want to note that I have not disclosed (so far) my challenges to my manager; this is often a very personal decision to each individual, but for now, I am choosing to be communicative without directly asking for accommodations. I am open to this changing in the future, however, if need be. There should never be shame in asking for accommodations, but I suppose because I was not accommodated as a child, I often think I don’t need them in work settings (although I do receive them in graduate school). Perhaps I carry an internalized shame that I am not even fully aware of.

And so, this is why I will never refer to any job or task as “simple.” I am considered of “average” intelligence in most ways, even at one point labeled “superior” in my verbal skills, and yet my processing skills and working memory are considered low. There is no one way to learn or to “be intelligent.” Perhaps this is one of the reasons I completed my undergraduate degree in psychology — because brains fascinate me. I love that all of our brains are so unique and process things in their own ways, whether you consider yourself to be neurodivergent, have a diagnosable learning disability, mental health issues, or none of the above.

As a writer, I love the quote, “never judge a book by its cover.” Everyone learns, communicates, and feels in their own way. My coworkers seem very kind and understanding so far, something I have not experienced in every job previously. I feel lucky, and have faith in my ability to pick up skills. Having patience and giving myself the grace to make mistakes has been a huge game-changer for my overall mental health too.

Do you struggle with learning disabilities? Do you seek accommodations at work? And how do you manage your mental health on the job?

Getty image by Chudakov2.