By Susan Davis Gryder 2016-06-13 17:38:47
Understand how adult learning disabilities may be quashing your potential and your happiness at work and at home. JEAN IS A GREAT CAFETERIA WORKER. She’s efficient, acts as a mentor to new staff members and is beloved by kids. The foodservice director is eager to promote her, but Jean insists she doesn’t want a promotion. She says she doesn’t have time to attend the district’s HR classes, mandatory for everyone in a supervisory position. Puzzled, the director asks Jean several times to reconsider, but finally moves on to another, less-qualified candidate for the job. LARRY DRIVES A DELIVERY TRUCK FOR A LARGE FOOD DISTRIBUTOR. His regular customers love his friendly demeanor, but when the boss calls to ask him to make an extra stop or change the order of his deliveries, Larry turns up late or not at all. His boss likes Larry but is afraid he’ll lose hard-won new business and, frankly, is tired of fielding calls from irritated customers. Eventually, he lets Larry go. RACHEL HAS UNDERGONE FOOD SAFETY TRAINING and takes care to note the holding temperature of the BBQ chicken before it’s served in the cafeteria. It’s a busy, noisy day in the cafeteria kitchen, with food deliveries arriving and the cafeteria manager is training a group of new employees. Rachel notes the temperature in the log, but switches the numbers without realizing it. The manager checks the log and, alarmed, throws away two full pans of food. These three foodservice employees are smart, capable adults who have one important thing in common: each one has a learning disability. Jean suffers from dyslexia, and struggles with reading. She is afraid to attend the HR class, which involves classwork and textbooks; in fact, Jean avoids any situation where others might find out that she’s barely able to read at all. When there is paperwork to complete, she brings it home, spending hours deciphering it and memorizing its appearance, so she can recognize it the next time. Larry also has a learning disability. He has difficulty processing auditory information, meaning he can’t easily follow and remember the instructions the boss gives him over the phone. Since he can’t write them down while he’s driving, he gets confused about what he’s been asked to do. And Rachel has ADHD and dysgraphia. She finds it difficult to concentrate when there’s a lot of activity in the workplace, and frequently transposes numbers when writing. Like many adults, Jean, Larry and Rachel may not know they have a learning disability. But they feel, profoundly, the struggle and even shame that many adults with learning disabilities live with every day. WHAT IS A LEARNING DISABILITY? A learning disability (frequently shortened to “LD”) is a neurological condition that affects a person’s ability to process information. This may lead to difficulties with skills such as reading or math, as well as issues like social competence, management of emotions, abstract reasoning, time planning, organization and attention. Common learning disabilities include: • processing disorders (difficulty processing information received through hearing, seeing or via language); • difficulty with reading (dyslexia); • difficulty with writing (dysgraphia); and • difficulty with arithmetic (dyscalculia). A person with dyslexia, for example, may not be able to distinguish among letters that are similar, such as p, b, q and d. She or he might perceive text as jumping around a page or bunched together. A person with an auditory processing disorder might seem hard of hearing. In reality, she or he has excellent hearing, but struggles to understand what is being heard. This person might have a hard time filtering out background noise, understanding nonliteral language like inferences and jokes and remembering sequential tasks or lists. There are other neurological conditions that are related to LDs and manifest with some of the same consequences; these include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), executive functioning disorders and memory disorders. People with ADHD have difficulty paying attention and staying on task; depending on the type of ADHD, they may or may not appear hyperactive. In fact, some people with ADHD can hyperfocus on one absorbing task for long periods of time. Executive functioning disorders affect a person’s ability to execute daily tasks, meet deadlines and plan and organize thoughts and actions. As you can imagine, it’s often difficult to distinguish between these disorders, as several have symptoms in common. A good number of people with LDs may have more than one LD, or, say, ADHD plus an LD. See the chart on page 62 for more on the different LD types and their characterizations. Because LDs are difficult to diagnose, estimates of the number of people affected by LDs range from 4% to as high as 20% of the U.S. population. That’s a lot of people! Within most families, classrooms and workplaces, there is at least one person who has a learning disability. Despite the fact that they are so common, LDs bring with them a lot of misconceptions. Let’s take a look at some of the myths and misperceptions: • LDs are not caused by environmental factors like too much screen time or artificial dyes in food. They are congenital (meaning present at birth) and often run in families. • LDs and ADHD are diagnosed by trained professionals, such as a neuropsychologist, using accepted testing and evaluation methods. • ADHD can be treated with medication; LDs cannot. • People don’t outgrow LDs. They may develop coping skills as they age, but the underlying issue will always be present. • LDs are not associated with lower IQs, laziness or lack of motivation. People with LDs can have very high IQs, and can be quite diligent and persistent. ADULTS: UNAWARE AND FRUSTRATED We tend to think of learning disabilities such as dyslexia as problems facing kids in school, but the lifetime aspect of LDs means there are many adults who struggle to cope with learning disabilities. In fact, it isn’t uncommon for people to get far along in their lives and careers before they discover that they have been living with an LD. After all, the term “learning disability” didn’t exist until 1964. While schools began to address learning disabilities in the 1970s, it wasn’t until the Eighties that they began to be widely discussed and accepted as real conditions. This means that those of us in our forties or older might never have had the opportunity to receive a diagnosis for struggles we faced in school and, later, in our working adult lives. Adults with learning disabilities frequently grapple with feelings of shame, anxiety, depression and inadequacy. They often use coping techniques that they developed as children to avoid being “found out,” such as memorizing instructions they can’t read or taking documents or forms home to fill out “later,” with more time or with the assistance of a family member, rather than risk a supervisor’s scrutiny. They may avoid classroom situations that might highlight their struggles. Some may avoid career advancement opportunities. Many fail to pursue education opportunities, because they believe they are too “dumb” to succeed. Do these actions—and non-actions— sound like those of someone you know and care about? Does it sound like you? Don’t despair—there’s lots of support available, even for people who don’t realize they have a learning disability until well into adulthood! IF YOU THINK YOU HAVE AN LD… If the stories of Jean, Larry or Rachel resonate with you, or you recognize some of the signs of adult LDs (see the boxes on page 62 and 64), you may suspect that you have a learning disability. If so, what’s the next step? Learning disabilities are best diagnosed through an evaluation conducted by an LD education specialist, psychologist or occupational therapist, particularly because it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish among LDs and other conditions. To reach a diagnosis, the evaluator will use a variety of tests and assessments, as well as observation, interviews and data collection. Often, these tools are used together to complete what’s known as a neuropsychological evaluation. These evaluations include both a diagnosis and recommendations on approaches the individual can take to mitigate the effects of his or her LDs. Be warned that neuropsychological evaluations can be expensive, running into the thousands of dollars, although they are sometimes partially covered by insurance. But the results can be life-altering. “It was like getting an owner’s manual,” recounts Ed, an engineer who got a neuropsychological evaluation in his forties, after years of wondering why certain aspects of work and home life were so difficult, such as meeting deadlines, staying organized and tracking household bills. “The diagnoses I received made it all feel normal, because these issues had names and the psychologists had seen them all before. The evaluation felt more like a description of who I am, rather than a list of what was wrong with me.” Ed was diagnosed with ADHD and auditory processing disorder. His evaluation not only allowed him to understand why he struggled with certain tasks and interactions, but to develop strategies to compensate. Examples include turning to technology tools, as well as simply trying to be more open with others, in order to manage expectations and get assistance when appropriate. MAKING LIFE WITH LDS BETTER As Ed learned, knowledge is power, and it’s often the first step to getting help—or helping yourself. There are many resources for adults with LDs (see the box on page 68). For example, adults with LDs related to reading, such as dyslexia, can get help through most established adult literacy programs. Many communities offer these programs at low or no cost. Educational programs for adults with LDs often use multi-sensory methods of teaching, combining visual, auditory and tactile instruction techniques to help students learn and retain information. Even before you seek a diagnosis, there are steps you can take to help yourself manage what might be a learning disability or ADHD. Technology has become an enormous boon to people with LDs and ADHD, who can now use their computers and smartphones to access unique tools. Inexpensive speech recognition software like Dragon allows users to dictate their words instead of typing them, and there are many free or low cost text-to-speech programs that read documents aloud. Another available software, ClaroRead, is specifically designed to support people with dyslexia and other text-based learning disabilities, and it can render phonetic spelling into correct words. It isn’t inexpensive, but free trials are available. Your smartphone can support many apps that help you counteract LDs, often for free or just a few dollars. Talkulator is an app that provides a talking calculator, useful for people who struggle with numbers and math. LetterReflex is a game that helps users overcome common letter reversals. And, of course, there are dozens of apps available to help people organize their notes from classes or meetings, including EverNote, Microsoft One Note and GoodNotes. These apps are particularly useful for those with ADHD and auditory processing disorders that make it difficult to follow verbal instructions. People with ADHD and executive functioning disorder will benefit, also, from task organizers like Daily Routine and Alarmed. To explore the latest options, search for “productivity apps” in your smartphone’s app store. Taking notes in training classes or meetings can present a daunting challenge for adults with LDs. One technology that helps in these situations is the smartpen. Smartpens, such as those sold by Livescribe ($100-$200), record everything that you write in an audio format. Users take notes in a special notebook, and the pen’s audio recordings are linked directly to the notes. By tapping on the paper, the user can hear a playback of whatever was said, and all notes can be uploaded to a computer. THE LETTER OF THE LAW If you have a professionally diagnosed learning disability, federal law protects you from discrimination at school and at work (as long as your employer knows about your disability). The two laws that cover learning disabilities are the Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA) and Section 4 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. These regulations say that a person with an LD can’t be fired or turned down for a promotion, a raise or available training because of the LD, as long as that person can perform the essential functions of the job. Not only are employees with an LD protected from discriminatory actions, their employers must provide reasonable accommodations for the learning disability. For example, an employer might provide a talking calculator for an employee who occasionally needs to use numbers, or allow the employee to leave voicemails instead of sending emails, if writing is an issue. Specialists who work with people with LDs can suggest workplace accommodations to help people with specific LDs. For example, if you work for a school district, the human resources department likely has a policy in place for accommodations and adjustments to job expectations for employees with LDs, as well as specific directions for requesting these. A BRIGHTER FUTURE If you are an adult with a suspected or diagnosed learning disability, you’ve already faced numerous challenges all through school and your career to date. Be proud of all the things you have accomplished! You have overcome disadvantages that others haven’t faced. Ready to take more steps along that path—but with help? By taking advantage of the many supports and tools available, you may open new doors that you hadn’t thought possible. Take a deep breath. Change, even when it’s positive, can be scary. But just imagine the brighter future on the other side of that new door! LEARNING DISABILITIES AT A GLANCE Learning Disability Dyslexia Dyscalculia Dysgraphia Dyspraxia Dysphasia Auditory Processing Disorder Visual Processing Disorder ADHD (Not technically a learning disorder, but affects learning) It Affects . . . Reading Math Writing Fine or gross motor skills Overall language ability Distinguishing sounds Interpreting visual information Attention, organization, self-regulation How It Manifests Itself Problems with word recognition, reading speed, reading fluency, vocabulary Problems doing everyday calculations, understanding time, using money Poor handwriting and spelling, difficulty organizing ideas in writing, difficulty copying information accurately Problems with hand-eye coordination, balance, fine motor tasks like writing or tying a shoe Difficulty retelling a story, speech that isn’t fluent Comprehending spoken language, understanding instructions, distinguishing small differences in words or sounds Difficulty interpreting maps, charts, symbols and pictures; skipping words or lines; misperceiving depth or distance Problems losing work, meeting deadlines, following instructions, staying focused and on task SIGNS OF LDS AND ADHD IN ADULTS Adults with learning disabilities and ADHD can exhibit some of the following characteristics: • Poor spelling • Skipping words while reading • Poor reading comprehension • Messy writing • Frequently crossing out words when writing • Confusing letters and numbers, especially those that are similar • Disorganized writing • Trouble reading charts • Careless mistakes • Losing things frequently • Trouble paying attention • Difficulty following instructions, especially if they are given orally • Difficulty estimating how much time has passed or how long a task will take • A poor sense of direction or confusing left and right • Speaking too loudly or too softly • Speaking too slowly and/or using lots of filler phrases Adapted from understood.org IN GOOD COMPANY Both Hollywood and the professional sports world are full of famous individuals who’ve struggled with learning disabilities and ADHD. Here are just a few names you might recognize! • Whoopi Goldberg—Dyslexia • Steven Spielberg—Dyslexia • Tim Tebow—Dyslexia • Michael Phelps—ADHD • Henry Winkler—Dyslexia and Dyscalculia • Anderson Cooper—Dyslexia • John Irving—Dyslexia • Octavia Spencer—Dyslexia • Justin Timberlake—ADHD • Daniel Radcliffe—Dyspraxia • Ty Pennington—ADHD START YOUR LD JOURNEY There are many local and national organizations that provide support and services to adults with learning disabilities. To get started, check out these sources: • Learning Disabilities Association of America: www.ldaamerica.org • International Dyslexia Association: www.eida.org (this organization has branches across the United States that can help with resources, locating tutors, etc.) • ADDitude: a website and online magazine for people with ADHD and LDs. www.additudemag.com • State vocational rehabilitation agencies: To find one in your area, visit this U.S. Department of Education site: www2.ed.gov/about/contacts/state/index.html • Your city or state’s Literacy Council: Use your web browser to get contact information. Susan Davis Gryder is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md.
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