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Employment Counselling for People With Developmental and Learning Disorders

Employment for people with disabilities and disorders can take many forms. The specifics of the disabling conditions will influence the strategies you and your client must consider.

Before you begin, you may want to learn more about disabilities that fall into the following broad categories:

Employment strategies for clients with developmental disabilities

Exploring Self-Employment Opportunities for Persons with Developmental Disabilities (5:25)

This video describes the value of being self-employed for people with developmental disabilities and their caregivers. It highlights 3 successful businesses and how they got started.

Traditionally, promoting the employment of people with developmental disabilities came from a human service model and was viewed as a community service. But faced with an aging workforce and growing labour shortages, many employers are reconsidering candidates they might have overlooked in the past. This presents an opportunity for many people with disabilities, including those with developmental disabilities.

Including people with developmental disabilities in our increasingly diverse workforce makes sound economic sense for employers. More people with developmental disabilities benefit from inclusive education models that see them completing secondary school and finishing post-secondary education. As a result, the variety and level of work available to clients with developmental disabilities continues to grow.

Job accommodations

For clients with developmental disabilities, job accommodations may include:

  • Electronic spelling correction
  • Memory aids, such as sticky notes and cue sheets
  • Use of natural design principles—visibility, feedback, usability—to create equipment that can be used without having to think about how it works
  • Computers that can produce synthesized speech
  • Large brightly coloured labels with symbols for caution, warning, and emergency
  • Instructions placed close to referred items
  • Timers, talking or digital, to time tasks and breaks
  • Talking calculators and tools
  • Facilitators, buddies, colleagues, and coaches
  • Self-operated prompting strategies, such as pictures
  • Efforts to minimize clutter
  • Efforts to minimize changes in duties, schedules, and rearrangement of goods
  • Sensitization of coworkers and supervisors to working with people with developmental disabilities

Financial concerns

In Alberta, clients who are eligible for persons with developmental disabilities (PDD) programming automatically have medical eligibility for the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) program. AISH participants are allowed to keep a portion of their earnings. If they choose to leave the program, they are also able to return under certain circumstances. For more information, refer to the latest copy of the Your Guide to AISH document.

Employment strategies for clients with learning disabilities

To help clients who have learning disabilities prepare for employment, you might:

  • Help them become better organized to address memory and learning challenges.
  • Encourage them to complete each task, uninterrupted, before starting another task.
  • Encourage them to develop step-by-step checklists they can follow to complete tasks.
  • Ask them if they use a watch, alarm clock, calendar, and daily planner. Help them access and learn to use these tools.
  • Help them access software with voice recognition and speech output capabilities. Such adaptive technology allows them to record, store, and convert verbal information to a text format on a phone or computer.
  • Help them use devices to record sessions as memory aids.

Action plans

To help clients with learning disabilities prepare and carry out employment action plans:

  • Transform information for clients by identifying specific tasks, streamlining them into logical steps, and creating a memory device to help them focus.
  • Never create more than 7 sub-steps for any 1 step.
  • Begin each step with an action verb.
  • Describe and model each strategy, talking aloud as you model.
  • Coach clients in each step and provide feedback on their performance. Be specific about correct execution and how they can improve.
  • Have clients practise and master each step separately before combining and performing the entire sequence of steps.
  • Have clients practise appropriate social behaviours for each strategy.
  • Complete all practice sessions in the counselling setting.
  • Involve clients in group sessions to help model the steps.
  • Ensure support strategies are in place. For example, for young clients, include parents or guardians.
  • Emphasize mastery of performance.
  • Emphasize client responsibility for performance.
  • Facilitate client learning of prerequisite skills (for example, computer skills).
  • Teach optimistic self-talk and help clients positively reframe pessimistic self-talk.
  • Present errors as an opportunity to learn positive problem solving. This strategy helps clients develop optimism and confidence when facing setbacks.

Time management

Clients with learning disabilities may not recognize their limitations in the area of time management. The following tips are helpful for coaching clients in this area, particularly for career planning and job search:

  • List in detail all the steps in the job search process.
  • Prioritize the steps—what must be done first, second, and third.
  • Set dates for completing each agreed-upon step.
  • Be patient. Clients may need several tries to properly sequence lists.
  • Transfer the information into a week-at-a-glance planner.
  • Encourage clients to keep the prioritized list in a safe place (for example, filed at home).
  • At each meeting, review the steps for the upcoming week. Break these steps into further detail, as required.
  • Schedule each detailed step for a fixed day and time.
  • Use audio recordings to capture schedules for clients who have difficulty with reading or writing.

Completing application forms

Here are some ways to help clients with learning disabilities complete employment application forms:

  • Help them develop a resumé.
  • Encourage them to use the resumé as an alternative to application forms whenever possible.
  • Help them learn the meaning and spelling of words commonly used on application forms.
  • Encourage clients who can read and write with some confidence to take extra care in completing applications to avoid making errors.
  • Help them practise following the directions on a variety of paper-based and online application forms so they get used to following the instructions.
  • Suggest that when they come to questions that don’t apply to them, they can simply leave a blank space or write in a dash. Remind them that sometimes it is better to leave a blank space than provide an answer that could be misunderstood or cost them the interview. Remind clients that they may have an opportunity to address such questions in an interview.
  • Encourage them to list all pertinent information clearly on an electronic document or sheet of paper so they can copy the information onto the employers’ forms. Help clients prepare the list of pertinent information.

Tips for completing paper forms

While many employment forms can now be completed online, employers may sometimes still require applicants to fill out forms by hand. In these cases:

  • Encourage clients to use an erasable black fine-tip pen or correction fluid for making changes. A small ruler and a spelling dictionary are also helpful.
  • Clients who have trouble reading or writing can ask for application forms to be mailed to them or they can pick up application forms. Later they can request help completing the forms from someone they know.
  • For application forms that must be filled out at the workplace, clients can carry with them a standard application form that is already filled out. They can copy the information onto the employers’ forms. You can help clients prepare the standard form.

Preparing for a job interview

When helping clients who have a learning disability to prepare for an interview, confirm they have the information and plans they need to succeed. Be sure they know:

  • The exact name, address, and phone number of the company
  • The date and time of the interview
  • What time they need to leave home to reach the interview at least 10 minutes early
  • How to get there
  • Where to park (if applicable)
  • The name of the person to ask for

Disclosure to employers for people with learning disabilities

About disclosure

“Of the clients with learning disabilities that I have worked with, the most successful in the workplace have figured out a way to talk about their learning disability in a positive way. They have been able to build allies and elicit support by talking about what they can do. It’s important to remind clients that an employer will hire you for what you can do, not what you can’t do.”

—Brian Mader, Career and Employment Consultant, Government of Alberta

People with learning disabilities may feel reluctant to disclose. Some clients do not need to disclose because they have developed personal strategies and accommodations to compensate for their idiosyncratic learning styles. However, others must disclose to pass employment entrance tests, complete job advancement courses, or complete assigned work within narrowly established parameters. And many could perform more efficiently on the job if they could arrange for some simple accommodations, such as a quieter workspace, access to software, or instructions in alternative formats.

The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada advises that “disclosing a learning disability requires a lot of thought and planning. Persons with learning disabilities should carefully plan how they wish to disclose and know the implications of this action. Employees and/or candidates may first want to reveal a little bit of information at a time in order to establish a level of comfort and trust. Ultimately, the candidate must decide the time, the place and the degree of information to share with others.”

Job accommodations

For people with learning disabilities, job accommodations may include:

  • Flexible work assignments
  • Access to word processors, calculators, and recording devices
  • Voice recognition phones to permit dialing by voice
  • Automatic dialers for people with sequencing problems
  • Timers to help recognize the time spent on various tasks
  • Scanners that scan printed text and read it out loud
  • Extended training periods
  • Distraction-free workplaces
  • Use of buddy systems with other employees
  • Written, demonstrated, or recorded instructions

Accommodations: A success story

An owner of a retail store wanted to promote an employee from a stock clerk to the position of cashier. However, the owner was concerned that the employee would not be able to perform the job due to a learning disability. The position involved operating a cash register and a bar code scanner. Each item was marked with both the price and a bar code. Most of the products were scanned into the register. However, sometimes the scanner would not work and the bar code numbers then had to be entered into the cash register by hand. The employee had difficulty with numbers and often reversed numbers in a series.

The owner agreed to allow the employee to try using an index card with a hole just large enough to allow 1 digit of the bar code to be displayed at a time. The employee could place the hole over the first digit of the bar code and then slide it along the numbers, allowing her to enter 1 digit from the bar code into the cash register at a time and reducing the chance of reversal.

Compensating for learning disabilities in the workplace

People with learning disabilities may have particular challenges in the workplace. Here’s how clients can compensate if they:

  • Make careless mistakes—Ask supervisors to review the steps of a job with them, and watch them complete tasks several times to determine the reason for carelessness and examine alternatives. For example, if carelessness appears due to a cluttered work surface, taking time to organize materials may help.
  • Make frequent mistakes—Ask supervisors to monitor their work to determine the consistency of error types. Pacing of work might be different for clients with learning disabilities than for others. Clients might ask that a partner be assigned to them to help determine the error’s origin. Supervisors should only expect employees to work on 1 area at a time.
  • Find it hard to focus on verbal information—Write down, or ask to have written down, important information in the simplest possible form.
  • Find it hard to follow written directions—Ask that directions be recorded and that diagrams be drawn to illustrate directions. Clients can also develop a code or symbol system to deal with written information.
  • Struggle to generalize or transfer knowledge—Review the original information format or process to determine similarities and identify what old information applies to the new situation. Clients could ask a supervisor to watch them practise the new process, reinforcing previously learned or acquired skills or information.
  • Struggle with time management—Ask to be paired with a partner to reinforce the schedule and work sequence. They could also ask that the time sequence of the task or schedule be illustrated or set out in a flow chart.
  • Have problems with short-term memory—Keep detailed notes, written or recorded, and clearly label them with topic, people involved, and date.
  • Have problems with hand-eye coordination—Find time to practise skills when they are not under pressure and have a mentor or supervisor check their performance to ensure they are practising correctly.
  • Have problems with visual perception—Have a place for everything and put everything in the proper place at all times.
  • Have a short attention span—Rotate several projects through the course of a workday.

Working with employers

You may want to share the following strategies with employers who have had little or no experience in supervising employees with learning disabilities:

  • Talk as you would to anyone else. If the employee can’t understand you, the employee will explain what you can do to make yourself understood.
  • Offer to help when it’s appropriate, but don’t insist. If people with learning disabilities need your help, they will tell you what will be most helpful.
  • Don’t assume that errors people with learning disabilities make are due to carelessness. Lateness, for example, may be caused by the disability. Discuss the problem with them.
  • Don’t interpret a lack of response as rudeness. People with learning disabilities may react unconventionally or may appear to ignore you. The person may have a processing problem that affects social skills.
  • Recognize that people with learning disabilities may appear to be staring at you or sitting or standing too close. They may be trying to read your lips or may be attempting to block out competing noise. They also may not be aware of how close they are to you because of depth perception problems.
  • Recognize that people with learning disabilities may not maintain eye contact or may become easily distracted. Draw their attention back to the task at hand.
  • If it takes the person extra time to learn a certain skill, this doesn’t necessarily mean they will perform the task poorly. Processing difficulties interfere with learning but not with doing the job once it has been learned.
  • People with learning disabilities may need help organizing thoughts and tasks. You may need to break down large projects into many steps.
  • Be direct when giving instructions. Say what you mean. Don’t hint, imply, or use sarcasm.
  • Help people with learning disabilities learn the unwritten rules of the organization. Don’t expect them to automatically pick them up. Explain these rules clearly.
  • Be understanding of their problems, but be firm about limits you set.
  • Be especially thorough in orientations. Go over every rule and make sure employees with learning disabilities understand the process of a successful workday.
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