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Tips for Self-Advocacy in the Workplace

By: Dale S. Brown (2008)

Here are some tips for obtaining the help that you need to get the job done. Many people with learning disabilities find it challenging to get accommodation and this article is designed to help you succeed in your request.


Setting the Stage

1. Be productive

Bosses and co-workers are more likely to accede to accommodation requests from people who are perceived as high performers than from those who are not considered essential to the organizational mission. Of course, being productive is hard without reasonable accommodation! You can end up in a Catch 22 situation. But do your personal best at all times.

2. Market your work to your bosses and co-workers

You need to be perceived as productive. This often is different from your actual productivity. Each organization has its own signals that show you are a hard worker. Common expectations include wearing clean, well-fitted clothes; arriving at work on time; staying at your desk; keeping connected to the office through e-mail if you are working at home; and keeping conversations with co-workers related to the job. Marketing your work to your supervisors may mean asking their advice, keeping them posted, writing memoranda, and representing yourself well with internal reports. For sales jobs, talk up your successful sales. Of course, you should not carry this too far and risk being considered a braggart.

3. Be helpful

When you are asked to do something, see it as an opportunity to serve. The more people who feel supported by you, the more likely they are to give you the support you need when you ask.

Determining the Accommodation You Need

4. Know your legal rights as a person with a disability

Study the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, as you research your rights, remember that the best accommodations are those that are won without resorting to complaints and lawsuits. However, knowing that the law is on your side will give you tremendous confidence. If you are in a unionized workplace, meet your union steward or other union officials before you need them to represent you. In order to receive accommodation as your legal right, you must disclose your disability.

5. Study yourself doing your job

Determine where you need accommodation. As part of that survey, see if there are things that can be done on your own. Consider:

  • Your work space. Can you find everything you need? Does it support your productivity? How well does your computer or other machinery help you do the job?
  • How you communicate with others. Does your supervisor insist on writing you e-mails rather than talking to you? Are you familiar with your voice mail system and can you use it to send messages to groups? What is the procedure for handing off your assignments to co-workers and turning them in for production? Does the system work for you? How do you give and get instructions?
  • The tasks themselves. Are there some tasks which are not that important to your job but are challenging to you because of your dyslexia? Many employees have successfully received help with reading through the use of clerical aid, text-to-speech software, and other technical solutions. In other cases, tasks have been assigned to other employees. For example, in one team, members took turns filling in the forms of a talented salesperson who is unable to complete them.

6. Research the range of accommodation options and choose one

Information on accommodations is available through learning disabilities organizations. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) has qualified people able to help you find the best accommodation solutions. Call them at 1-800-526-7234 and be ready with a clear definition of your problem before you pick up the phone. Also, review the article Job Accommodations for People with Learning Disabilities for examples of job accommodations and solutions.

Making Your Request

7. Consider a productivity or quality argument

If you do not wish to disclose your disability or prefer to stay away from legal discussions, productivity and quality improvement are good reasons for the employer to meet your disability-related needs. Explain what you want in positive terms. Here are some examples:

  • If you let me work more flexible hours, I could work in the evening when I do my best work and complete more jobs.
  • I need Mary to proof my work before you see it. That way we can both pay more attention to the content and not worry about the way it's typed.
  • On important matters, I'll probably write you an e-mail and ask you to read it to be sure I understand. That way we'll both have something to refer to and not have to rely on our memories.

8. Tell them about your disability and ask them for what you need to work around it

If you decide to ask for accommodation on the basis of disability, first talk to your supervisor. If you believe your supervisor may not be supportive and you work for a large company, visit your human resources department. If you work within a self-managed work team, your accommodation might be an issue for consideration by the entire team. In that case, talk to the team leader or bring it up at a team meeting.

Although you do not need to submit medical documentation of your disability at the time you first make your accommodation request, you should have this documentation available to you. Your employer can demand proof of your disability prior to providing an accommodation.

Have a clear description of your disability, the accommodation(s) needed, and the modifications needed in the work environment to ensure that you meet with success in approaching your job tasks. The Americans with Disabilities Act allows employers to legally turn down accommodation requests if they can prove they constitute "an undue hardship." For this reason, propose the least costly and time-consuming accommodations that will enable you to do your job well.

9. Follow up with a written request

Make the request brief; include relevant information about your disability and the need for accommodation. Explain how it will help you meet your employer's goals. Of course, should that fail, the next step is a written complaint under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Following Up

10. Assess the results of your request

If you are able to obtain reasonable accommodation, be sure to use it well. Be productive and helpful to your co-workers and your supervisors. Make them glad that they granted the accommodation to you. This will make it easier for the next person seeking accommodations. Thank those who supported you. If the accommodation does not help restart the process at step 5

About the Author

Dale S. Brown is the Senior Manager of LD OnLine. She wrote the original article while working at the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities based on her experience developing disability policy and leading in the self-help movement of people with learning disabilities. She has published five books and won the Ten Outstanding Young Americans Award for her work on learning disabilities.

Dale S. Brown Linkages, Fall 1997 Vol. 4, No. 2, pp 13-17.