Skip to main content

This is the weekly Careers newsletter.

Radhika Panjwani is a former journalist from Toronto and a blogger.

Canadian entrepreneur Stuart Bruce says workers with learning disabilities have a strong work ethic and a distinctively unique approach to problem-solving, and organizations that hire, accommodate and nurture these workers will enjoy a competitive edge.

Growing up, Mr. Bruce, chief executive officer of First Insurance Funding of Canada, struggled with reading and was continually admonished by his teachers to work harder. Outside the classroom, he was bullied.

The fog of confusion lifted at the age of 8 when he was diagnosed with dyslexia, a neurological condition that’s often hereditary and is a common cause of reading difficulties.

And so when it came to a career, Mr. Bruce opted for entrepreneurship, where he excelled because he chose to focus on his strengths and learned to lean on others for the skills he didn’t have.

“The most successful organizations arise from bringing a diverse group of individuals together, including people with dyslexic thinking,” said the Oakville, Ont., resident. “Neurodivergent thinking is the type of thinking that’s going to propel organizations forward and solve the problems facing us in the future. Inclusion and diversity make organizations stronger.”

What are learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities, or LD, is an umbrella term for disorders related to challenges in acquiring, organizing, retaining, understanding or using verbal and/or nonverbal information. Examples include dyscalculia, which affects a person’s ability to understand numbers and learn math facts; dysgraphia, which affects handwriting and motor skills; and non-verbal learning disabilities, or NVLD, where individuals struggle with a range of conditions that include social and spatial disabilities. Some conditions including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, a common neurobiological disorder can co-exist with LD, but is not considered a learning disability.

Disability discrimination

For those with LD, school can be especially hard. Given that the conditions are lifelong, navigating and succeeding in the workplace can be equally challenging. Workers with dyslexia and other LD process information in a different way compared to their neurotypical counterparts and need tremendous support and patience from supervisors and colleagues.

It’s quite possible that those with dyslexia (and other LD) don’t follow a straight career trajectory, said Alicia Smith, executive director of Dyslexia Canada. Many quit school to join the work force earlier, while some others may pursue postsecondary education and start new careers later in life when they are in a better position to advocate for the support they need, she said.

“As a child with dyslexia, you have to work incredibly hard just to keep up. I think that work ethic stays with many of us throughout our careers,” Ms. Smith said. “So, while our career paths might not be linear, there are a lot of people with dyslexia who do manage to eventually make their way to their career objectives.”

Accommodation and acceptance

Many adults entering a workplace may opt not to disclose their disability for the fear of stigmatization. Also, supervisors may not be aware or understand LD. The problem arises when employees and employers/managers must figure what type of accommodations would help both to work effectively.

Individuals with LD may require both soft and hard workplace accommodations, notes the Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work in a newsletter. Examples of soft accommodations are flexible hours, eliminating problematic non-essential job tasks, and modifying the way information is presented. Hard accommodations include assistive technology, equipment and modifications to the physical environment.

A worker whose social skills may be affected because of LD will find it hard to interact with co-workers, but will benefit if the employer allows them to work from home. Similarly, if an employee’s LD makes it difficult for them to communicate verbally, the organization can provide them with advance notice of meetings by spelling out the agenda, giving them time to prepare. Ms. Smith suggests those with dyslexia will benefit from the materials presented in a format that’s compatible to text-to-speech technology, she said.

Playing to strengths

Many with LD are not able to hold on to jobs because of a gap between their skills and job requirements. Other times it could be because of difficulties with social skills or “systemic barriers” that are a result of lack of understanding and accommodations, said Catherine M. Smith, a psychoeducational consultant from Oakville, Ont., in a blog. Many with LD leave high school with a vague idea of what their “deficit areas” are and how those will affect their career choices.

Catherine M. Smith writes about a woman who struggled to get through law school because her central area of difficulty was auditory processing deficits. People with APD have difficulty understanding sounds, including spoken words. Law school may not have been the right career choice for her, especially because she would have been expected to process, clearly and accurately, copious amount of information.

Conversely, a man who had difficulties with writing, joined an applied program of video production at a university and was successful because he was able to lean on his strengths and his vocation involved minimal writing.

“Fit between skills and jobs is a primary ingredient for success,” she writes. “This is true for everyone. For individuals who have learning disabilities it means that they must have a clear understanding of their specific learning disabilities and understand when and how they are likely to manifest.”

Embrace yourself

From feeling lost and bullied in school to running a thriving business, Mr. Bruce has come a long way. He said his self-reliance came from his early struggles with the educational system and being a misfit. If he could give advice to his eight-year-old self and others with LD, it would be to tell them:

“You just think differently than others. Recognize it [LD] as a strength,” he said. “Some tasks are going to be more difficult and take more time, but you’re smart … and you will be okay.”

What I’m reading around the web

  • This story lists four toxic traits of a bad leader. For starters, a bad manager has less-than great listening skills. The article not only outlines the bad behaviours, but also has a quick test whose answers will settle any ambiguity of good versus bad leaders.
  • In this personal story on CNBC, Julia Boorstin, CNBC’s senior media and tech reporter, shares five tips for productivity that helped her write and publish a book.
  • This story on BBC says worldwide some 120,000 tech jobs have been lost, according to the website, which tracks technology job cuts. Shifts in the market and rising interest rates appear to have been responsible for companies “cutting the bloat.” The number has since increased as of late last week to more than 137,000.

Have feedback for this newsletter? You can send us a note here.