By Sara Savoie

Youth with learning disabilities while not “immune” to underemployment can develop the tools to help them in their job search and throughout their careers

From an economic standpoint, underemployment is when there are more available workers than jobs on the market. However, on a socio-professional level, other images come to mind: having to bust your tail to end up in an unrewarding work situation, having a job beneath your skills or, worse, working in a field that doesn’t correspond with your education. When working with youth with learning disabilities (LD), being aware of this and of potential solutions to prevent underemployment in this vulnerable population is important. The national situation should be considered, and certain intervention components, advocated for.

When it comes to youth underemployment and education, Canada fares quite well compared with other countries.[1] School is much better for youth with LDs since their need for adapted learning strategies were recognized. More time, access to isolated rooms and specialized coaching, as well as software designed for their disabilities, make it possible to consider their full potential before determining whether or not they will be able to succeed and get their diplomas. Few studies have assessed the repercussions in terms of employability but access to higher education is now possible for individuals with the required aptitudes (beyond the adapted strategies).

Over the last few decades, national indicators for underemployment among young people, with or without LDs, have remained stable. However, some groups of young university graduates seem more vulnerable to underemployment, in particular immigrants and those with a degree in humanities or social sciences. But students with LDs are rarely mentioned – no distinction is made – yet, learning disabilities, referring to a number of disorders which may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding or use of verbal or non-verbal information, can certainly have an effect on employment. These disorders affect learning in individuals who otherwise demonstrate at least average abilities essential for thinking and/or reasoning. As such, LDs are distinct from intellectual deficiency.

LDs result from impairments in one or more processes related to perceiving, thinking, remembering or learning. These processes include, among others, phonological processing, visual spatial processing, language processing, processing speed, memory and attention, and executive functions (e.g. planning and decision-making). LDs may also involve difficulties with organizational skills, social perception, social interaction and perspective taking. They are lifelong; however, the way in which they are expressed may vary over an individual’s lifetime, depending on the interaction between the demands of the environment and the individual’s strengths and needs.[2] It therefore makes sense to reflect on the effects of LDs on youth, in particular on those who are underemployed but perhaps shouldn’t be, unless, of course, this underemployment stems from conditions affecting the entire population.

Over the past 10 years, I have learned a lot from working with this clientele and I feel it is necessary for me to share some key considerations to fight underemployment and eliminate persisting prejudices. It is important to be informed, and to go beyond the traditional framework for career exploration and choice. I believe understanding the influence of these LDs and their repercussions on career choice is essential. In fact, the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC) has published a study on the social costs of learning disabilities in Canada. This applied research, titled Putting a Canadian Face on Learning Disabilities (PACFOLD), sought to establish what it means to be a child, youth or adult with a learning disability (LD) in Canada. Most importantly, it showed just how resilient Canadians of all ages living day-to-day with these disabilities are. They face many roadblocks to success in school, at work and in life that we should know about. I feel that the clients we help are the ideal starting point for understanding how LDs influence career advancement. When it comes to how LDs are expressed, every case is different. However, according to this research, certain key factors make the biggest difference for success in school and at work:

  • Finding a teacher who is trained to work with students with LDs
  • Having family support that includes financial resources
  • Finding an employer that understands learning disabilities and provides the necessary accommodations

As with any other medical condition, early screening, intervention and support are needed to minimize the impact of LDs on the people with them and the cost to Canadian society. With the right support, Canadians with learning disabilities can enjoy equal and fair opportunities to realize their potential.

I’ve found that youth with LDs such as dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder fight a daily battle to have career prospects that are consistent with their potential on the one hand and their interests on the other. In addition to finding a balance between the two, they must also understand the challenges of the school system and job market opportunities. All youth need to grasp the importance of these factors, but young people with LDs also need to overcome resistance on the part of certain teachers, parents, friends and co-workers who more often remind them of their limitations instead of their strengths. In your approach, focusing on important considerations other than the limitations of learning disabilities can lead to significant benefits.

Job satisfaction: Is job satisfaction driven by factors that are accessible to the young candidate? Giving up on certain occupations does not necessarily mean giving up on job satisfaction. Emphasize how useful certain lines of work are and how rewarding they could be. Consider combining a few occupations to round out satisfaction.

Employer expectations: Be specific in your descriptions of the expected behaviours within the profession or by the employer (e.g. attendance, following instructions, work quality), and try to determine if these behaviours can dovetail with the characteristics of the LD. This makes it easier to understand what needs to be improved, without risking job loss, while countering potential negative perceptions on the part of the employer.

Original strategies: Doing things differently does not mean that the employer’s expectations will not be met. Checklists, the opportunity to prepare for oral questions or getting to work early are just a few examples of adapted employment strategies that youth can learn to employ. The job market is different from the school environment: young people must identify strategies that contribute to job security for themselves and use them.

Perseverance: Do not expect things to happen overnight. The efforts made in school are still important when looking for a job – although the learning curve is different. Reading and writing may no longer take up as much time but being on par with other candidates still takes a lot of energy.

While young people with LDs will not necessarily be “immune” to underemployment, they can develop the tools to help them minimize the impact of their conditions during their job search, while on the job and throughout their entire career paths.


Sara Savoie is a career counsellor (MEd, 2003) and special education teacher (MA, 2007). She contributes to the socio-professional integration of youth with learning disabilities, and works with parents, teachers and employers wishing to find the best ways to help these young people realize their professional potential.

[1] Canada 2020 – Canada’s leading, independent, progressive think-tank.
[2] Learning Disabilities Association of Canada.