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Read with the ears, write with the mouth

By Amanda Silliker

Having both a son and a brother with a learning disability, Greg Davis is particularly acute to the needs of individuals who struggle with reading, writing and math. When she came on board as the program manager, training and development, at OC Transpo in Ottawa, Davis decided the text-heavy training manuals needed an overhaul.

“It’s so stressful for them and some of the material was not terrifically accessible or it was just very dense, lots of text,” says Davis, who is responsible for training the transit operator’s 3,000 employees — 1,700 of which are bus drivers. “We want to make sure everybody who comes into that training has the opportunity and tools and resources they need to be successful.”

As of 2009, the curriculum was built on the principles of adult education and OC Transpo was focused on ensuring it met all learning styles. The curriculum is now very interactive.

“We do hands-on, we do games, role-play, quizzes, we have a lot of visuals and that is one way we can help people with learning disabilities, but it’s good for everyone too,” says Davis. “All of our curriculum is written in clear language and we have lots of illustrations.”

For OC Transpo, it’s critically important that all workers — including those with leaning disabilities — are truly grasping the training material, otherwise safety will be compromised.

“We carry 97 million passenger trips per year all over the city… and we want them to understand the material and understand it well. If they don’t, obviously, it’s a huge impact. If they don’t have full knowledge of what they are doing and they don’t know the safety procedures to follow, there’s huge potential for injury to the self, others and property damages,” says Davis.

No matter the industry, organization or province, safety managers everywhere need to be aware of learning disabilities within their workforce because they can impact a worker’s ability to do her job safely.

One in 10 Canadians has a learning disability, according to the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada. More than half-a-million adults in this country live with a learning disability, making it more challenging for them to learn in universities and colleges and on the job, according to the 2006 Participation and Activity Limitation Survey by Statistics Canada.

“It’s the single largest disability we know in our education system, which becomes our work system… It doesn’t stop in Grade 12,” says Linda Barbetta, community outreach resources co-ordinator at the Learning Disabilities Association of Ottawa-Carleton. “It is something people carry with them their whole lives and in some aspects of their work, it is going to impact them. It is a fairly significant disability that is probably more prevalent than they even know.”

As a first step, health and safety managers should take a hard look at their orientation program and find ways it can be adapted to better suit those with learning disabilities.

“We are all wired differently. There are different learning styles out there and often a lot of health and safety programs are rather generic by nature and they paint everyone with the same brush and don’t take into consideration that we all hear, see, learn and assess risk differently,” says Bob Neilson, occupational health and safety consultant at Ennis Safety and Security Services in Kentville, N.S. “There is kind of a tendency to have one type of style of orientation that might not be effective for everyone.”

Having an orientation and training program that caters to those with learning disabilities is important so workers know they are supported from the get-go.

“When we go in on day 1, on the first morning we go in and say, ‘Welcome to OC Transpo, we wish you every success, we are here to help you and if you ever needed extra help in school, if you have ever had a learning disability, there’s lots of things we can do to help you. It’s confidential and please let us know,’” says Davis. “And we don’t make a big deal about it.”

From there, all safety orientation and training needs to be designed in a way so that people with learning disabilities will truly retain the information.

According to the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, 80 per cent of learning disabilities are dyslexia (weakness with the symbols of language), so it’s important for training to not rely on the written word. 

“It’s rethinking reading. You can read with your ears, you can write with your mouth. It doesn’t always have to be in the traditional way,” says Barbetta.

Using visual aids is essential. Videos are a great way to train on a plethora of safety information, often being easier to grasp than written procedures for most employees. Handouts, diagrams and illustrations are effective as well.

Role-playing is an important part of the training at OC Transpo. For example, trainees act out various real-life scenarios, such as a dealing with an angry customer, and then discuss and debrief their response.

“They aren’t reading about it, they are experiencing it,” says Davis. “Then after they have had that experience, what did you notice? How did you feel? When you said this, what was their reaction versus that? It’s guiding them through the experiences. Having them talk about it, having them think about it, having them apply it.”

Games can also be used as an effective tool. For example, a trivia game can be set up where teams compete against each other to identify the correct policy or procedure to follow in a given situation.

At the end of orientation and safety training, it’s important to feel confident that employees have retained the information.

“Just providing training to employees is no longer enough; we need to ensure that training is effective and that employees understand what is being provided,” says Neilson.

Typically, workers are required to respond to written questions to demonstrate understanding, which will be challenging for individuals with dyslexia, for example. An auditory approach may be helpful in this case.

“If you have that person hear something and give it to them in an auditory format where they can follow it and then ask them to answer the questions, they will often do very, very well,” says Barbetta. “It’s the modality in which you present the information that is the barrier.”

There are many ways to complete post-evaluation exercises, says Neilson, including asking questions in a team or group.

After orientation and training have been updated, safety documents need to be revisited to ensure they are friendly to people with learning disabilities. OC Transpo took its emergency response manual and switched it from a typical thick booklet to a flow chart with colour and shape. This is not only better for individuals with learning disabilities, but it is also easier for all employees.

“It is quicker and easier to sit and look at a flow chart. If this happens, here are your options, plan A, B or C. We took a lot of text away and we just put the information in a different format for individuals to quickly look at it and process. And it didn’t compromise the information at all,” says Barbetta, who worked with OC Transpo on this initiative.

Under human rights legislation across Canada, an employer must accommodate an employee with a disability — which includes learning disabilities — up to the point of undue hardship. Some accommodations individuals with learning disabilities might need include voice-to-text software, information being given to them in audio format and computer programs that help with spelling, punctuation and editing.

“The reality is with a person with a learning disability, the average accommodation is under $500,” says Barbetta. “So it is a very difficult argument to make that you cannot accommodate a person.”

Employees may need extra time for tasks, a quiet room to work alone or one-on-one coaching.

Psychological safety

People with learning disabilities face stigma in the workplace due to many misconceptions around the disability.

“They often are articulate, smart, outwardly-looking, competent people but they really struggle with character assassination: lazy, not trying, not focused, doesn’t seem to care — and none of that is often very true,” says Barbetta. “Before (managers) go down a disciplinary path or pass judgment, they first need to see if there is something else going on.”

One way to address the stigma is to provide awareness training to senior leaders, managers

and supervisors.

“(They need) a good understanding of how people tick,” says Neilson. “If we were well-educated in regards to disabilities, mental illness, you would see a much different approach.”

According to the 2007 Putting a Canadian Face on Learning Disabilities study, persons with learning disabilities were more than twice as likely to report high levels of distress, depression, anxiety disorders, suicidal thoughts, visits to a mental health professional and poorer overall mental health compared to persons without disabilities.

“Mental health and learning disabilities, they are very, very close cousins,” says Barbetta. “Some people... have been exposed to a lot of failure, a lot of embarrassment, humiliation.”

Anxiety is known to be a big part of the learning disability profile, adds Barbetta.

“It starts young when you go into a system that evaluates and assesses you on how well you read and how quickly you can read. That’s how we measure intelligence in the education system and that is something adults carry with them their whole life.”

OC Transpo is sensitive to the fact that workers with learning disabilities are at a greater risk for mental health issues. To address this, and other issues employees may be facing, the transit operator has established a peer support network that provides confidential, one-on-one support. Peer supporters are trained in active listening, psychological first aid and critical incident support. 

“Often when someone has a learning disability, the stress may be overwhelming at times or they may want to disclose or speak to someone in a safe, confidential situation,” says Davis.

The most important thing employers can do is create a culture where employees feel they can disclose their learning disability. People in positions of authority need to be educated on the fact that they will always have a percentage of workers with a learning disability in their workforce, says Barbetta.

“It’s a cultural piece in an organization. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it,” she says. “Do employees feel emotionally safe to go to a manager and at some point say, ‘I am going to need more time to do this and this is why’?”

Changing the curriculum to one that was friendly for workers with learning disabilities did not just happen overnight at OC Transpo. It took time for everyone to get on board and embrace change and then to work out how to design the curriculum and make sure the instructors had all the appropriate training, says Davis.

But they are reminded that all the extra work was well worth it when individuals with learning disabilities successfully complete the program. At

a new bus operator graduation ceremony in June, one trainee spoke about how he was extremely nervous when he first started because he had a learning disability. He decided to disclose his disability and from then on, the instructor checked on him everyday and gave him the additional support he needed.

“He said he had made it because of the instructor’s support. He actually cried when he was speaking and everyone in the room applauded him — and some of us cried, too,” says Davis. “With all the supports we have in place, it’s every day business; it’s what we do. We want them to drive that bus safely and deliver excellent customer service and that’s the focus to get them there.”

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2016 issue of COS.

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