Accommodating Gen Y's ADD

Sue Shellenbarger's most recent "Work & Family" column in the Wall Street Journal -- "Young Workers With Dyslexia, ADD Find Office Less Accommodating Than School" -- resonated with me. She notes that employers have not kept pace with the recent growth in diagnoses of learning disabilities and the accommodations Gen Y students have grown accustomed to at school.

I have mixed feelings about her call for more accommodations. I would guestimate that at least half of the Gen Y college students and recent grads I work with have been diagnosed with a learning disability, which makes me wonder whether something still counts as a disability when it seems increasingly to be the norm.

I also wonder -- and worry -- about the students who receive such generous accommodations in college (from both their schools and their parents) that they emerge from college convinced they can't handle even basic tasks. I worked with a recent college graduate a few years ago who refused, based on his disability, to assemble a list of graduate schools he was interested in and their deadlines. That's it. School, deadline. School, deadline. Repeat twelve times. I even showed him where to find the deadlines on the grad school websites. He was convinced he couldn't do it and reacted with shock and anger when I told him I wouldn't do it for him. I felt like the first person to say to him, "you must do this yourself."

Perhaps I was. I didn't need to ask him how he'd graduated from college -- a good one -- with that (perceived) incapacity, because I knew that his parents and school administrators had basically absolved him of having to do anything for himself. I did, however, ask him how he would ever hold down a job if he couldn't handle a task as rudimentary as that one. All those accommodations had really set him up for failure. It was depressing. At what point are these accommodations exacerbating learning disabilities, and creating life disabiltities? Consider the accommodations that Shellenbarger recommends employers make available for this influx of learning disabled millennials:

  • tape recorders to record or dictate information
  • frequent short breaks
  • quiet workspace
  • specific filing or organizational systems
  • varied presentation methods during training

The one that I find most unrealistic is the fourth -- since when is it the boss's job to keep an employee organized? Even the article, which is very pro-accommodations, quotes a Disabilities Act lawyer about employees who "have an undue sense of entitlement":

Attorney Patricia H. Latham of Washington, D.C., tells of a client with ADD who kept arriving to work late. "They're angry with me, and I don't think they should be, because that's part of my problem," the woman said and asked Ms. Latham to write her bosses a letter. Ms. Latham refused, telling the woman, "your employer doesn't have to put up with your being late to work."

There's no question in my mind that colleges and the parents of Gen Y feed that completely bonkers sense of entitlement and incapability. Could there possibly be a worse way to prepare college students for the working world?

The article also made me ponder the number of people who manage to wrangle learning disability diagnoses to secure accommodations on their standardized admissions tests. I know for a fact that some people game the system, and somewhere licensed professionals all sign off on this stuff, which makes it awfully hard to tell applicants, "that's bad -- don't do it." Interestingly, after being sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the makers of the GMAT exam no longer indicate on their score reports whether the test taker has been accommodated. LSAT score reports still do, but surely some litigious applicant (or more likely the applicant's parent) is putting a stop to that as I type.