LEARNING HOW TO LEARN
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Transitioning to Employment: Preparing for the Journey

Joyanne V. M. Cobb, MA, CRC, CRP

Transition is the passage from one stage of development to another. For young adults who have learning disabilities, this transition stage is critical to the rest of their lives. In this context, transition refers to the passage of the learning disabled youth from high school into the adult world of work. The path to work will take many turns and on the way the learning disabled person must be prepared for the bumps in the road and the success that may lie ahead.

As a learning disabled adult who now works with this population, I know the critical points that should be addressed as a person prepares for this transition from school to work or to post-secondary education/training.

When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) legislation (PL 101-476) was passed in 1990, the law required that all students who receive services under IDEA must have transition planning beginning at the age of fourteen. The transition plan is part of the Individualized Education Plan (IEP). In a 1998 LDA Newsbrief, Judith Heumann, then US Department of Education Assistant Secretary, stated that the law defines transition services for a student with a disability as a coordinated set of activities in an outcome-oriented process that promotes movement from school to post-school activities. Through the IEP process, students, along with other members of their IEP team, plan their high school experiences to help them attain the skills they need to succeed in high school and to achieve post-secondary goals.1 But so many issues never get addressed in these plans and these issues sometimes are the barriers preventing this population from moving forward and achieving advancement in their chosen careers.

These young people are especially vulnerable and need to be guided carefully through the maze of choices open to them outside of high school. In fact, research finds that learning disabled students drop out of high school and get involved in criminal behavior at a much higher rate than those who are not disabled. They are also under-employed as young adults and earn a lower wage than their non-disabled counterparts. Furthermore, a 1999 LDA Newsbrief predicted that by the year 2000 only 15% of jobs will use unskilled workers.2 The Department of Labor made a similar forecast. With this kind of job market in mind, the learning disabled student or adult must be involved in the transition planning and understand how to gain the basic knowledge and skills to meet entry level requirements in the career he or she chooses.

The process of transition planning should help the learning disabled youth become an independent and self-affirming adult. With this process the person should be able to act as a self -advocate and understand the strengths as well and the challenges he or she possesses. This ability is critical to a successful entry into the work force.

The following are some tips on completing that planning process and filling in the gaps commonly occurring in transition planning.

A first step is to identify strengths and challenges to enable young persons to determine the skills they already have and decide on what skills they want to acquire. Success in the work place will involve being honest about any problems and creating a plan that will help them to compensate and accommodate. They can easily discover what they need if they begin to understand how they learn. How they take in information is the key to understanding what work environment will best suit them.

For example, getting distracted easily by noise and finding it difficult to concentrate in a loud, open setting should be noted when researching careers and evaluating work environments. If verbal skills are strong but written skills are weaker, then careers or work settings that make use of verbal skills should be a priority in planning for the next career move.

If a learning disabled person is headed for a new career, then he or she should consider training. How much training will be necessary to move into another field? How much will it cost? The answers to these questions will factor into any career decision. For example, I would have to seriously evaluate going back to school for more training because of the cost as well as the time. If the person decides to return to school, however, then knowing one’s learning style and identifying strengths and challenges can also help with the process of identifying suitable career choices.

One way to begin to identify strengths and challenges is to sit down and make a list. For example, to identify strengths, the person could consider these questions: What am I good at? What do I excel in? The answers to these questions could help the learning disabled youth begin to see his or her strengths surface. To identify challenges, one might consider these questions: What do I find difficult to do? What do I need help with much of the time? From the answers to these questions, challenges will begin to emerge. This information will help identify the next key step to successful employment: identifying accommodation needs.

To ask for what they need, the learning disabled must know what they need. Accommodating their disability means they should know which accommodations they will need to succeed. To do that, they can complete an informal accommodation assessment that will enable them to talk intelligently about assistive technology and other types of help they will need to complete work-related tasks. An informal assessment can include questions like these: What do I need to make the playing field level? What works for me in school or at work? What special needs or conditions do I require to get through my day? This list will help make needs clear and will enable the learning disabled to visualize their day and what it takes to get them through various tasks. Knowing their needs in the workplace by identifying accommodations will also help the employer understand and provide those accommodations.

Once strengths and challenges and accommodation needs are identified, the person can come up with an elevator speech about his or her disability. For example, if someone riding on an elevator were to ask the question, “What exactly is your learning disability anyway?” A learning disabled person should be able to answer that question by the time the elevator gets to the next stop. This explanation will have to be concise and definitive. The person must be able to say what it is and what he or she must do to compensate for it. Armed with this concise and definitive answer, the learning disabled person can then talk confidently to an employer about his or her unique abilities as well as needs.

Moving into the world of work, the learning disabled person will face one of the most common questions related to joining the work force: What about disclosure? When should an employer be told about the disability? Disclosure is very important to this population because at first a learning disability can sometimes be invisible to the employer. In college, I called this the YLF or You Look Fine Syndrome. Often other students would say, “You look fine. Why do you need extra time on the final.” At work, I’ve also heard things like, “You look fine. Why do you have to record all of our meetings?” So disclosing may surprise supervisors and co-workers. Asking for adaptive equipment or extra administrative help may be hard. Following these simple rules can make it a little easier:

  • Never disclose after making a major mistake at work.
  • Ask for an accommodation fortified with the research already done on the type needed and the cost as well as how it will affect your current work situation and environment.
  • Be able to put your learning disability in a positive light if you disclose at the interview. For example, you can say that your learning disability has made you proficient in dictation and the use of dictation software programs. Or you can say that you started a support group at college for LD students and facilitated group discussions on diversity.
  • Make it clear that you will ask for help if you need it and that, based on your challenges, you are willing to have another employee check and edit all your work.

Learning disabled adults or transitioning youth should know their challenges and how to accommodate them. They should not be afraid to ask for help; there are no stupid questions. They should be involved with their transition planning and build their career path on a foundation of basic skills, thinking skills and personal qualities to make suitable choices. Post-secondary goals should be ones that they dream of--- not the ones that others have decided for them.


1 Heumann, J., (1998). Transition and IDEA 97. LDA Newsbriefs,33 (6), n.p.

2 LDA Postsecondary Education Subcommittee (1999). Transition planning: Preparing for postsecondary employment for students with learning disabilities and/or attention disorders. LDA Newsbriefs, 34, (2),n.p.

Joyanne Cobb is the author of Learning How To Learn: Getting Into and Surviving College When you Have a Learning Disability. She is the Youth Project Manager for The Ticket to Work program at MAXIMUS, Inc. and can be reached for speaking engagements and private consultation by contacting her at joycobb@learninghowtolearn.org.

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