Can I Be Asked If I Have A Learning Disability?


Yesterday my supervisor and I were in a meeting discussing how I can improve some of my skills in the work place. In mid-meeting he says, “Bluntly, do you have a learning disability?” I responded saying “No I do not in any way shape or form”

He replied “I disagree, but we can talk more about this later” to say the least I was taken aback by this statement. I then told him I was offended by what he just said and he just kept on with the meeting like he did not say what he said.

I have never been in a situation like this. I have spoken with him once about the incident. I don’t know if I am over-reacting but what should I do here? I am sort of in a bind.




Dear Offended:

We focus on workplace communication issues and are not an authoritative legal resource. However, since this involves a counseling-gone-bad, we can provide some insights that might be helpful.

A learning disability can cover a wide range of issues, which you can research on several sites. It isn’t a shameful matter to have a learning disability, but I can imagine you were startled to be asked about it and embarrassed at the question.

Based on the bit of conversation you reported here, it doesn’t sound as though your supervisor asked the initial question in an insulting manner, although it was admittedly blunt. However, his follow-up remark, of “I disagree” was so blunt it was rude, especially if he didn’t offer any supportive comments to go with it.

He may have thought he was being helpful by asking about reasons for skill problems you are having. Or, he may have wanted to determine if you could improve or if improvement is not likely. He may have wanted to find out if you have a learning problem that needs to be taken into account in training. Or, he may merely have been asking because he can’t figure out why you are having trouble with work and that idea was his last resort.

The bottom line is that it is not illegal to ask a current employee if they have a learning problem (disability), if the purpose is to determine if the employee will be able to do the work or if he or she needs accomodation to learn the work.

The key to this is your work performance. If you weren’t having problems with work your wouldn’t have asked you about your learning skills.

The ability to work requires two components: Willingness and Ability. If you are willing to work but aren’t doing it to the standard needed, that implies you aren’t able for some reason. If you are able to work but aren’t doing it, that implies you aren’t willing for some reason.

The question is: If you are willing to perform your work effectively but are not able to do it, why aren’t you able? Your supervisor was trying to figure that out. It might also be something YOU would like to figure out!

If you have friends at work, consider talking to them about things they have observed in your work. Don’t just complain about your supervisor, but approach it as asking for their input.

Talk to your supervisor and rather than going over that conversation, move forward and ask him what areas he thinks you are not understanding and how he thinks you might be able to improve. Or, ask him if you seem to be improving recently and get him to discuss the whole work issue.

If you like work otherwise and generally get along with your supervisor, you may need to just figure this was a situation where he used a poor choice of words. Focus on doing well at work and let him see that you are both willing and able to do all that is required to be effective.

Best wishes with this matter. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.