and Civil Rights in Employment and Postsecondary Education
Having a learning disability means you have a disability.
This simple concept is one that is often missed by many of those
involved in the learning disability field, including those with
learning disabilities themselves This lack of connection to the
concept of disability as part of the learning disability condition
leads to the failure of many to access those key elements that allow
persons with learning disabilities to succeed - civil rights protection
and the right to reasonable accommodations. However. even if persons
are knowledgeable about their disabilities and are knowledgeable
about their rights, the issues of when and how - and
even whether or not to use the civil rights protections offered
by the law are an ongoing debate. It often comes down to the question
of to tell or not to tell, and if you do tell, when
is the right time.
Every major civil rights law concerning persons with disabilities,
including the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with
Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), recognizes individuals with learning
disabilities as persons entitled to those unique civil rights protections
given to persons with all other disabilities. IDEA insures a free,
appropriate, public education (FAPE) in grades K-12.
There are certification and qualification obstacles to gaining
access to civil rights as persons with disabilities. Because disability
laws are civil rights laws, they do not require substantial changes
in standards for either educational or employment settings. The
laws state that a qualified individual with a disability
is someone who, with or without a reasonable accommodation,
can do the work or perform the essential function of the employment
position. To be covered by civil rights protection, an individual
with learning disabilities must be able to perform the work required
for the particular job or position. If a person cannot perform the
essential functions of the job, even with reasonable accommodations,
there is no discrimination in either failing to hire or in firing
a person. Disability laws forbid employers or educational institutions
from asking, as part of their interview process, if a person has
a disability. It is therefore up to the person to self-identify
in order to be guaranteed protection under the law. No program,
educational setting, or employer is required to provide accommodations
unless the persons with disabilities state that they have a disability
and provide documentation to verify that declaration. Persons with
disabilities should also be able to identify the accommodations
necessary for them to perform the tasks required for that job or
educational program. Because individuals with learning disabilities
and/or their parents are responsible for self-identification in
order to be protected under civil rights laws, they must:
- know that they have learning disabilities and have written documentation
of their disability
- be knowledgeable of the laws
- know that they qualify for protection under the laws
- know what accommodations they will need
- take the risk to self-identify, and
- face a wide range of uncertainties.
For many individuals with learning disabilities, the identification
issue becomes a life-long concern and debate. The debate focuses
on whether it is worthwhile to identity oneself as a person with
a learning disability or to try to do the best one can without accommodations.
Central to the debate, to tell or not to tell, is the lack
of knowledge and understanding of learning disabilities by the general
public. The terms learning disabilities and mental retardation
are too often interchanged. The continuing disagreement within the
learning disability community itself concerning the causes, identification,
impact, effects, etc. of learning disabilities further impedes understanding
by the general public.
Perhaps the more important question an individual with learning
disabilities must ask is not whether to tell or not to tell,
but rather the consequences of not telling. Can the person
with learning disabilities do the job or derive benefit from a postsecondary
educational program without accommodations? If the answer is no,
the individual with learning disabilities (the parent, advocate,
etc.) needs to consider the following:
- How severe is the learning disability?
- How much does the nature or manifestation of the disability
conflict with the needs of the job or educational program?
- How open is the employer or educational program to recognizing
and accommodating individuals with learning disabilities?
- If there is a union in the workplace, what is its position toward
and willingness to support members with learning disabilities?
Persons with learning disabilities need to be informed consumers
and effective self-advocates. The skills of consumerism and advocacy
need to be incorporated into the high school curriculum. Organizations
such as LDA can serve as resources for students and adults with
learning disabilities, their parents, and advocates and for schools
and employers as well.
IDEA, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and ADA can open doors to
persons with learning disabilities. Civil rights laws make discrimination
illegal; however, individuals must ask for protection under the
laws through self-identification. With self-disclosure, one seeks
implementation of the laws. Without implementation, civil rights
laws are meaningless.
This article appeared in the July-August 1996 issue of LDA
Newsbriefs, the newsletter of the Learning Disabilities Association.
Newsbriefs is published six times a year and is a benefit of LDA