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Experiencing Employment Discrimination Due to Learning Disabilities

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Employment has been one of the most challenging aspects of having a disability. I struggled to find a job that I wanted to do and faced the fear of not being able to perform the job with having a Learning Disability. One of the biggest obstacles in employment is ableism. Ableism can be found in all areas in of our society, but is often prevalent in places of employment. I can remember facing outright discrimination, where people didn’t want to associate with me because of my disability. Ableism is often more subtle and employers can use it to discriminate against workers with disabilities.

My first experience with ableism was when I was young. I was out to dinner and a person with Down syndrome was wiping a table. One of the people in my dinner party remarked, “Isn’t it nice that this restaurant gives people like them a job.” I can remember knowing that the person with Down Syndrome had a disability. I was also aware that I had a disability and knew that this wouldn’t be a job that I would enjoy doing. After hearing that statement, I wondered if that would be the only job I would be capable of doing. I was afraid that I would not be able to perform any other job because of my difficulty with math, executive functioning and processing speed. I struggled with my confidence and problem-solving. I had an all-or-nothing approach. If I made a mistake, I feared that I would be let go or that eventually, my disability would get in the way of being successful.

I also had jobs that were not understanding of my disability. I had one employer who expected me to perform job duties that I couldn’t do, even after I explained it to them. I was compared to another employee with a disability who could perform the job duty that I struggled with. The employer said she was the “most disabled” person at the place of employment.

I also have experienced ableism when working for an agency that provided services for people with disabilities. The agency prided itself on having a certain percentage of employees with disabilities. I thought I finally found an employer that would be understanding. I was offered a position that was different than the one that I applied for during the interview. I took the job offered at the interview because I needed the money and because I thought they would be accommodating. The job was a disaster! I made too many mistakes and the accommodations they gave me were not working. I simply couldn’t succeed at the job. The agency was anything but understanding and thought I was making the mistakes on purpose and that I wasn’t trying my best. I was fired for making too many mistakes.

Individuals with visible disabilities often face discrimination from the moment someone sees them. The person comes in for an interview and the person who is qualified may not be hired because of their disability. A person with a hidden disability may not face the initial discrimination, but may have difficulty on the job or when asking for accommodations. The employer may not believe that the person has a disability because they can’t see it. There are laws that mandate that you can’t discriminate against a person with a disability and deny reasonable accommodations. But many employers win discrimination cases and trying to prove discrimination can be difficult.

Many employers are hesitant to hire people with disabilities. When employers hear the word “disability,” they think of what the person can’t do rather than what they can do. Often they think that the worker with a disability will be more of a liability than an asset. I have disclosed my disability at an interview and have chosen not to disclose it at others. Disclosing a disability has advantages and disadvantages. A benefit to disclosing a disability is you get to see how willing your employer is to support individuals with disabilities. One of the drawbacks of disability disclosure is that it opens the door to stigma and judgment.

Employers are often not prepared to train people with disabilities. The person who is training a new employee with a disability may have limited experience in working with individuals with disabilities. Often instructions may be unclear or the trainer moves too fast. A person with a disability can learn to do many things, but they may need extra time and different ways to learn how to do the job.

For so many years, I wondered if there was a job out there for me with my disability. Thankfully I am now employed at a wonderful job, with caring compassionate people. I work as a paraeducator with students with disabilities. The staff that I work with is understanding of my disability and focuses on what I can do, rather than what I can’t do. Despite the understanding, it can be unnerving to disclose my disability because I can’t control how someone will react and because of negative experiences in the past.

Much work needs to be done to make employment possible for people with disabilities. The first thing that needs to happen is that agencies need to have a more customized approach to employment services. I once sought help from an employment agency that helped people with disabilities get jobs. Most of the clients they served had intellectual disabilities, and were placed in skilled labor jobs that I wasn’t interested in. The majority of job readiness activities such as circling jobs in the newspaper were a waste of time and took me from the temp jobs I was working at.

Social service agencies also need to expand their views on what people with disabilities can do. I was told that my job choices would be limited because of my disability and many jobs would be beyond my capacity. I also had people who thought that I could do anything and if I got my act together, I could be a teacher. Neither extreme was helpful and did more harm than good. People with disabilities need to be able to explore different careers. If a job doesn’t work out, there may be similar jobs, or they can follow a different path.

Employers need to adjust how they view employees with disabilities. An employee with a disability can be an asset, not a liability to your workplace. Employees with disabilities may need support, but not pity. An employee with a disability needs to be held accountable and expected to do their job well.

Employment is possible for individuals with disabilities. The employee with a disability may need extra time and training.  Employees with disabilities may also need accommodations and need to learn different strategies to do the job. People shouldn’t be boxed into a job based on their disability. Give the person with a disability a chance to try and the supports needed to do the job. Not every opportunity is guaranteed to work out as expected and they may have to try something else. I am grateful for those who encouraged me to keep trying and never gave up on me.

Getty image by djiledesign.

Originally published: September 13, 2021
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