Accommodating Disabilities

With guest blogger and my pal Sean Rea (

Once in a while, a topic seems to be begging to be written. A couple weeks ago, CBC’s The Nature of Things aired an episode called “The Brains Way of healing.” Last week, a discussion on policies for accommodating learning disabilities popped up in one of my professional networks and a few days later Sean asked me how the Canadian military deals with accommodations. Around the same time, friends of ours, who have a son with autism stopped in to watch the Nature of Things episode. Through all this, my own daughter who deals with disability and her quest for a career that will enable greater self-sufficiency weaved its way through the other discussions, trying it all together.

CaptureI contacted Brett due to my son’s interest in being a paramedic in the public sector or the military equivalent of medical technician. My son, next year, is entering in to his last year of high school making this a real issue. The main reason I reached out to Brett was to find out how the military deals with accommodation of learning disabilities in its occupations, as I couldn’t find any information on this. The college system in Canada is very clear on the process for students with learning disabilities, they are assessed and then college decides what the student needs to be successful. In my son’s case, he has several diagnosed disabilities including: a grapho-motor disability, ADHD, and mild dyslexia. These three combine to make it difficult for him to read and write. That being said, to the outside world, he comes across as a very intelligent and articulate 16 year old. His IQ is slightly above average, and he has a vocabulary several years above his grade level. From a learning accommodation perspective, if my son can have content presented and studied without reading (i.e. video or audio) and is tested orally or from a performance basis, he learns as well as his peers. His knowledge of his limitations draws him to kinesthetic types of fields for work, and not fields that would require him to read quickly to attain the information he would need to make a decision. For this reason, he has been attracted to the first responder’s field, or just the other night he mentioned maybe being a carpenter.

Within the military, the absence of a policy on how to address learning disabilities has left training facilities and supervisors in the workplace to deal with each individual as best they can. I experienced this personally as Chief Instructor of Acoustics from 2000 to 2002, having a number of students with learning difficulties including ADHD, ADD and others that I wasn’t privy to because they are medical problems that the students and the health system don’t have to share, causing a barrier in helping the student succeed. It was frustrating, but we did the best we could.

CaptureMy friend’s son with autism will be going into grade 7 next year. He is an awesome guy and makes me think of what a young Sheldon Cooper would be like. He likes things a certain way and when you say it’s time for hot-dogs, buddy you better have his dog on the plate ready to go. He is very high functioning and has strengths in math, memorization and organizing things. My daughter has disabilities to deal with as well. She’s 24, she completed a college program in visual. Thanks to support from her family and an employment counselor she has held down a part time job in a florist department in a market for several years. She shares an apartment with a friend and has made an incredible amount of progress towards her goal of becoming self-sufficient. Saying that, her desire to move into a more challenging and financially rewarding line of work has been a struggle.

I have been known to help myth bust learning styles pretty regularly. I just did it again last week in a webinar for the ISPI San Francisco Bay Chapter. The topic of accommodation got me to thinking about it, and I went back to check my notes to be sure I had the right message. When instructional designers are doing their bit for the greater good, it is a waste of time, effort and resources to use learning styles in the design of learning. Dr. Will Thalheimer provides a great top ten list of resources supporting this. It’s great advice and I agree 100%. Until you get to someone with a learning disability – and this is the difference. When designing training for the masses, learning styles are bad ju-ju. But what about addressing the needs of individuals that are placed into the learning environments designed for the masses?

CaptureAs a seasoned Instructional Designer (ID), I agree with Brett and Dr.Thalheimer regarding learning styles. At the end of the day, the learning activities chosen by the ID must be aligned with the learning/performance objectives. If the objective is to be able to do something (say build a widget,) then the learning activities must be kinesthetic (build the widget.) In instructional design 101, we teach that we must design our training to the lowest common denominator, or in other words, to the population having the biggest performance gap. Then we come up with other strategies to meet the needs of those having smaller gaps (staggered entry etc.) The question that Brett and I floated around was “as IDs to we need to include learning disabilities into our gap analysis and choice of learning activities?” In my opinion no, as they have a much wider difference in strengths and weaknesses in different learning abilities. Also, adults with diagnosed learning disabilities should be aware of their accommodation needs and can advocate for themselves in the learning environment. In the example of my son, he will struggle with learning activities that involve reading activities and written assessments. However, he excels when given hands-on, practical activity, auditory text and instructional video. So, in the example of paramedic training, if the chosen instructional technique for starting an IV line is through a text book, followed by simulation, he will struggle with text book learning, but once sees an instructor demonstrate the technique he will learn quickly. Or he might ask the instructor to recommend a video alternative to the text book (for example How to Insert an I.V.) In the case of Brett’s friend, typical accommodations for autism may include, the much heavier use of written media, visuals, pictures and graphic. They will often need to know the “why” of a lesson and they often learn best from whole to part (complex to simple.)

So with such a wide range of functioning and abilities seen across individuals diagnosed with a learning disability, it would be next to impossible to design for these individuals as the accommodation needs are individual.

That being said, society, businesses, and agencies need to play a bigger role in making sure these individuals are successful in their learning, performing in the workplace and making a positive contribution to society. I anticipate that this will be a greater concern as my son’s generation enters the workplace, considering almost half of every school classroom has students with Individual Education Plans (IEP.) Given the current Duty to Accommodate rules under the Canadian Human Rights act, we don’t have a choice but to provide accommodation, with the exception of undue hardship and occupations that have a valid reason to discriminate.

If we want these individuals to be successful, the learning and performance community is going to need to be flexible with these learners, but in my opinion it is on the delivery side and not the design side. A well designed course, following adult learning principles, and incorporating neuro-science principles such as those outlined by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel in Make It Stick (2014) will create an effective learning program that can be supplemented with alternative activities based on the learning needs of those individuals with disabilities. The good news is that Brett’s experience as an instructor who didn’t have access to this information on the students is changing. The fact is that today, children coming through the education system with an IEP are aware of their accommodation needs and can articulate them to the instructor. I could see it coming shortly that things like the pre-course survey would ask participants about any accommodation needs they have. No different than dietary/allergy factors we are asked on a regular basis. This would provide the instructor/facilitator the opportunity to open a dialogue on how to best help the learner succeed.

CaptureAs Sean noted above, there are Duty to Accommodate rules under the Canadian Human Rights that have been incorporated at the Provincial level as well. You can read more on Ontario and British Columbia’s  positions at the links. After I read these examples, I noted one common thread. The requirement to accommodate appears to be directed at employers. Reading between the lines, that means if I am disabled – I should not disclose my disability until after I have secured employment, as discussed here in Duty to accommodate mental health disability upheld by landmark Ontario Human Rights Decision. If you disclose your needs in a hiring interview, my gut tells me that any other candidate without a requirement for accommodation will get the nod. So where does that leave kids like ours? A little more digging reveals a real morass of services to wade through as shown on the inclusion BC website. When you look closer, the actual support to people with disabilities looking for employment, the available list for support gets short quickly.

The progress Sean describes in the (Ontario) education system is awesome. It still requires that the disability is recognized, properly diagnosed and then reported to the education system so it can be addressed. With my daughter, the full scope of her disabilities was not clear until she was almost finished high school. That was a set-back but we are thrilled to see the progress she continues to make.

With my performance technologist and MEGA-Planning view on the world, where If you are not adding value to our shared society, you have no assurance that you are not subtracting value (Kaufman, 2011), I still see a very large gap between when a child with an IEP leaves the education system and the transition to the workforce where they have an opportunity to add value to our shared society.

We’d love to hear YOUR thoughts. If you found this post worthwhile, please DO share it!


Kaufman, R. (2011). The manager’s pocket guide to mega thinking and planning. Amherst, MA, HRD Press Inc.

Brown, P et. al. (2014). Make it stick: the science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press