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I have genetically-inherited disorder named "Neurofibromatosis", which affects my learning abilities and which has no cure as of now. Because of this disorder, I am taking more time and more repetitions in order to learn anything. However, I am working in the IT industry, which is continuously evolving, and which requires that I need to learn things faster and continually. I also enjoy learning; however, I am a bit slower than others.

At this situation, how safe it is to reveal this to my management and take their help to plan my career?

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Where are you? What are the discrimination laws like where you live? –  Oded Jan 2 '13 at 11:22
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@Ramya Without knowing discrimination and employment laws in India, you have to assume the worst possible scenario. Informing your boss about your illness while you still seem to be able to handle it on your own, could result in discrimination or worse being fired. Just be careful. Before revealing your illness to your boss, make sure that there are first laws to protect you. –  maple_shaft Jan 2 '13 at 12:51
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How aware are you of how much additional time it takes for you to learn something versus the average person in your field,e.g. is it a factor of 1.5, 2, 10, 100 or 1000? Which part of IT are you doing as administration may not be as learning intensive as development or technical support? I'd probably advise being well researched on the condition, what accommodations do you want from the employer, and what steps can be done to manage this condition. –  JB King Jan 2 '13 at 14:05
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@maple_shaft - Laws do not protect people they give them recourse when they are wronged. The potential for recourse often provides incentive not to take action against people potentially covered by the law, for the most part a financial return is all you can hope for. Suing your employer also tends to put a bullet in your career. So questions about avoiding the situation all together should not be barred. The question as phrased is to local because it contains information about specific circumstances, not because of the location. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 2 '13 at 16:32
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Aside from legal issues, the answer to this question is really going to depend on how profound the effect is. As @JBKing said, a factor of 2 is different from a factor of 1000 (at which point you might not be qualified for some jobs), and what the job is matters. –  Monica Cellio Jan 2 '13 at 16:36

6 Answers 6

As a boss, I generally don't like it when people just "tell" me things:

  • it is snowing really hard here today and the roads are bad
  • at the current rate we will not get the Smith project complete by the deadline
  • I have a condition you hadn't noticed that causes me to learn slowly

I much prefer when they "ask" me things:

  • it is snowing really hard here today and the roads are bad: would it be ok to work from home today?
  • at the current rate we will not get the Smith project complete by the deadline: can we move the deadline, or should we work overtime, or can the other team help us a little?
  • I have a condition you hadn't noticed that causes me to learn slowly:

And here I pause. What is the question you would ask your boss after telling about this condition. What accomodation do you want?

I can think of many:

  • In some companies (Microsoft in the US is a good example) there are expectations about how often you get promoted. Someone in the same position for 4-6 years without a promotion is considered to be "going nowhere". Would you like some consideration related to promotion rate?
  • Your boss may have a choice of "many and varied projects with lots of opportunities to learn new things every month" and "steady consistent work with the same technologies and clients" and may assume you prefer the former, when you actually prefer the latter.
  • Your firm may support training only by "sending you on course" for a solid week, when you would do better with something at-your-own-pace, maybe video-based, so that you can repeat and review as much as you need to.

There are dozens of other things you may want, if you imagine a "fairy godmother" who would wave a wand and give them to you. Take some time to make that list.

Now, decide what 2 or 3 things you want to ask your boss for. And then ask yourself: Does the boss need to know about my condition to evaluate this request? For example, the online video training instead of the week-long course - that is a preference many people might have regardless of medical conditions. But some accomodations might be denied unless you had a "good enough" reason to ask for them. Once you know what you're going to ask for, you will see far more clearly whether there is any point in revealing your personal circumstances (which carries some risk) in order to ask for what you want.

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I love several of these answers, but here's some additional food for thought - if you can find creative solutions that don't cost the company big money, you're likely to do better in any conversation with your boss that involves the disorder.

Here's some good examples:

  • projects where I get to learn some new things, but often have opportunities to repeat the task several times right after I've learned it, so I know I'm sure about it.

  • flexibility to come early or stay late to review and repeat new information without delaying schedules

  • coursework where I can repeat lessons at my own pace - with the evolution of online video courseware and groups like Khan Academy, this is becoming easier and easier.

  • working out ways to learn from your peers that takes no more time from your peers than working with a normal coworker would, but which accounts for your condition - for example, getting permission to record them or making sure you have good notes you can review.

Here's some bad examples:

  • an understanding from your boss that it's OK if your schedules slip and it takes you longer to get things done - costs both time and money to your employer.
  • personal tutoring that is more expensive than "bootcamp style" week long coursework. Caveat - for most bosses, if we are talking a $1000 course vs. a $1010 course - no big deal. If we are talking a $1000 course vs. a $1500 course - bigger deal.
  • extra time spent by peers on an ongoing basis to teach you because of the condition

As a point of encouragement - I worked with an incredible chief architect (one the highest level, most well respected engineers in the organization) who confessed to me while we were working on a project that he was dyslexic. When I realized that, I realized that he had also become an INCREDIBLE diagram-drawer, because he could draw a diagram far, far more easily than he could write a paragraph of text. His diagrams were fantastic, the best I've ever worked with, and he was ardent and fast about updating them all the time, so you always knew they would be top notch. This was his way of compensating and it generally worked out that with all his awesome diagrams, he never needed to write many sections of documents, because we could all agree that his contribution was already outstanding.

I don't think many people in the organization even knew he had a learning disability. He was also a great teacher - good at explaining, and also quick to pick up nuances from conversation, and he never ever hesitated to call you and chat about a technical issue.

This was a really good case of turning a bad thing into a good one - he found a better way of communicating and by enthusiastically using his strongest capabilities, he was a key member of an incredibly technical and document driven organization.

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It really helped. –  Ramya Jan 3 '13 at 5:03

Local laws put aside (since I don't know what applies in India), telling your boss this information - it might well be held against you in the future.

Let's say you are re-negotiating your salary, the boss could easily take up things as "since you do not learn as quickly as I expect of you and what is required, I cannot give the raise you want". Regardless of it's true or false, you will have a hard time talking yourself out of that situation.

Even if you have a good relationship with your boss and trust him/her to make good accommodations for your progress if you tell this - a new boss might come one day and hold this against you - it will be in your papers for as long as you are at that company.

Can't you instead try to figure out how you want to learn things and just say that you learn easier given such-and-such conditions. It will be more of a win-win situation since your employer typically want you to learn new stuff as fast/good as possible.

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I would even go so far as the say it will be held against you in the future. The question is can you get enough benefit from your manager knowing to offset the damage it will do to your career. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 3 '13 at 14:28

Decide if you want an equal or a special treatment by your boss.

  • A special treatment is a kind of "attacking tactic". It is conveying a message, "I can't learn too fast, so I need more relaxed schedule than my colleagues have";
  • An equal treatment is a "defensive tactic": "Whenever I want a raise, I'm absolutely likewise my colleagues".

Of course, there is no way back as soon as you disclose about the disorder.

There are pro's and con's for each approach, but, as many have pointed out, I would suggest "active defense" tactics here: don't disclose until you have something to "fight for".
In the meantime, try to find your way to compensate your learning speed:

  • Learn yourself. As @bethlakshmi pointed out, you may find yourself an excellent performer of a certain kind of work, just look around;
  • See what learning methods work best for you; it might be visual, audio, drawing, or whatever;
  • Organize yourself. Squeeze more effectiveness out of your working time; While others may waste a bit of their working time, you have to be self-organized at all times;
  • Negotiate your assignments; See what types of work you do better;
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The only time anyone actually wants "equal" treatment is when they feel they are being treated unfairly in a bad way. People rarely complain when they are on the receiving end of special perks or favoritism. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 3 '13 at 14:30
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@Chad Exactly. But once your arguments revealed they may work against you, especially if there is no government-enforced protection laws. –  bytebuster Jan 3 '13 at 15:01

[EDIT per comments: Assess your legal situation first, before talking to your employer] That is a tricky question.

First I would set the the main goal here to create a "win-win" and find an outcome that's long term viable and a happy place for both you and your employer. Open and honest communication has probably the best chances of succeeding

So if you are reasonably comfortable with your current boss and the company, I would prepare properly and then have an open conversation about this topic.

Here is why:

  1. If your boss knows, he/she can structure work assignments and make accommodations if needed.
  2. It puts you in the driver's seat: You are somewhat in control of the process and outcome: You can make specific suggestions that could address this: For example, accommodation for longer learning times, repeating classes, do extra-online education, etc.
  3. Be mindful that your condition is likely to affect your productivity (in comparison to your peers). You need to think through how to deal with this: do you want to put in extra learning time on your own or do you expect to do this on company time at a somewhat reduced salary? Are there certain types of assignments and work that are not a good fit for you because of your condition?
  4. Unless you can completely maintain expected productivity, your boss will find out eventually anyway. It's much better to have the resulting conversation upfront than at a time where this is an actual performance problem. This can seriously damage your relationship.

I'd play the "discrimination law" card as a last resort only if all else fails. No matter the outcome, after suing or threatening to sue, your position at the company will be unsustainable in the long run and it will look terrible on your resume.

Again, the main goal here is to create a "win-win". Pro-active communication is your best shot but it certainly comes with a risk, so you need to prepare yourself properly:

  1. Get as much information as you can: Review the legal landscape in your country and review your company's policies. Figure out whether there have been other cases in the company and what happened there. Consult an employment lawyer if necessary. However, DO NOT EVEN MENTION ANY OF THIS, in any conversation unless there is absolutely no other way.
  2. If there is an "Employee Assistance Program" which is required to keep you anonymous, start there first.
  3. Figure out whom to talk to in which order. This may depend on company policies and level of comfort. You could start with your boss, HR, or some senior level person that you trust.
  4. Think ahead about what you want: what specifically do you want to happen, what are the potential outcomes and which are you are willing to accept?
  5. Practice this conversation ahead. Role play with a friend, write down some key sentences and memorize them.
  6. Put yourself in your boss's shoes: What is his goal? What is she worried about? What questions might he have? What is her greatest priority at the moment? How does all of this fit in the current landscape and structure of the group? The more you can anticipate his worries and concerns, the better will you be able to tackle them and make well thought out suggestions on how to deal with them.
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The OP is in India so the laws are different from the protections you get in the US/Canada/EU. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 2 '13 at 14:10
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-1 Because without consideration of local laws and how this will affect the OP, telling the truth can have disasterous consequences. –  maple_shaft Jan 2 '13 at 14:40
    
I specifically advised the OP to read up on the local laws and potentially consult an employment lawyer BEFORE initiating any conversation. Sorry, if this didn't come across as clearly. –  Hilmar Jan 2 '13 at 15:56
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@Hilmar - You appear not to have any knowledge or understanding of the location that the question applies to. So your answer boils down to I do not know but here is my opinion. That does not make a good answer here at SE. If the question were about the western areas then this could apply well. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 2 '13 at 16:36

This is a tricky one. With a disabilty that can affect the quality or timeliness of your work, I personally I found that it is often advantageous to tell your boss so that he knows why something is happening. However, in a profession that requires frequent learning, it might be considered by some to be a something that disqualifies you from the job (which is why you usually don't bring it up in an interview). Further the personality of the boss and corporate culture come into play. If you can see that they have made obviously accommodations for someone else who has a disability, they are less likely to react badly. Only you can truly assess how risky telling your particular boss and your particular company is.

You should also assess why you want to tell him. If you are telling him because you want to be assigned to work on legacy stuff so that there is less learning involved is different than telling him because you think you are about to get a bad performance appraisal.If you don't have any accomodations you want and have no performance concerns, then I would not bring it up.

If you choose to tell him, then the way I would approach it is:

First make sure your performance is a good as it can be. People will make more accommodations for a valuable employee than one who is average or below. So go the extra mile for some time before you bring it up and make sure he knows you are going the extra mile.

Do not bring it up as an excuse if he brings you in to talk about a performance problem. That is the worst possible time to talk about it. If that happens, accept whatever criticism he gives you and resolve to try to fix it. Then about amonth later, come to him and tell him what you have been diagnosed with and follow the rest of the steps. If he fires you for not being able to keep up before you have told him, then anything you say is too late at that point. In that case, what you want to do is look for a position where they work on less cutting edge stuff, so that there is less to learn on a daily basis.

Have a plan of action. "I have a learning disability, you figure out what to do about it" just isn't going to make it. Be prepared to discuss how you personally work around your disability (and highlight your successes) and what accommodation in the workplace you want. Be prepared to show how you spend your own time learning to make up for the slower pace of your learning at work, for instance. Also since this is a medical condition, you might want to provide documentary proof that you have it. And you might want to be prepared with some educational materials; this is something your boss may never have heard of and not be aware of the the ramifications.

No matter how you prepare, it is risky, so be prepared mentally to have negative consequences before you do it. Even if you don't lose your job, sometimes, having it known that you have a medical problem that seems a bit odd can make people act as if they think you are lying. I had a close friend who got diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue and her doctor told her she had to reduce to part time. For the next ten years until she retired, her co-workers hassled her because they didn't believe fatigue was a real condition. Your condition could be similar because this is not a common condition.

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