Meeting the Challenge of Conformity

by Dale S. Brown

Reprinted with permission from "Newsbriefs," Mar.-Apr. 1988, a newsletter of the Learning Disabilities Association of America.

Jane sat quietly in her office. Everyone was gone. She could hear the traffic going by her window and the low hum of the computer. She was writing a request to her boss to allow her to have flexible hours, so she could have some quiet time to work alone. With her particular learning disabilities working during the bustling noisy normal business hours, with the constant interruptions, was difficult, more difficult she suspected, than for the other professionals in her firm.

She worked more efficiently in silence. When the others were gone she could concentrate better and pace around the office when she needed to think. She didn't have so many interruptions and could drop some of the intense self-consciousness that was necessary for her to maintain good office deportment. For example, she could concentrate and not worry about someone's interrupting her and causing her to look extremely startled.

Since starting the job, she had been putting in sixty hours a week in order to handle her workload and was afraid the lack of sleep was exacerbating her perceptual problems. She had decided to write a memorandum explaining this to her boss.

It was a difficult job to do. Normally she felt herself to be a skilled self-advocate. But there were so many important points she needed to make in this memo - for example, her problem getting to work on time.

She stopped writing to collect her thoughts. She remembered that the Chief Executive Officer had talked about teamwork. Like most people who grew up with differences, the word "teamwork" brought back memories, such as being the last one to be chosen for a team, or having everyone on the team yelling at her for doing something wrong. But now sitting quietly in her office, she suddenly felt as if she wanted to be part of the team.

Here at work, she realized, she had already been chosen as a team member just by being hired. Now it was a question of showing team membership by her actions, such as coming in on time, filling out forms correctly, and thinking of the needs of the corporation as she did each assignment. She realized that she really wanted to be a part of the company even though it took such effort to arrive on time and to follow the multitude of rules, many of which involved her areas of disability. Thoughtfully, she put the memorandum to her boss aside.

Jane was feeling the powerful human urge to conform and be a part of a group of people. Although her learning disabilities had caused her to violate some of the corporate cultural mores, by making every effort to fit where she could, she became a more effective worker. People were more likely to help her. And organizations are more efficient when everyone works together smoothly and easily.

Jane is like many learning disabled people, however, in finding that conformity can be challenging and difficult. There are several reasons for this. Some of them are:

Perceptual problems make it difficult to determine the "hidden rules." For example, Jane was one of the few professionals who arrived "exactly" at 8:00 a.m., her company's starting time. Most everyone else came in between 7:45 and 8:15. However, Jane had not noticed this and was struggling to obey the company rule.

The learning disability itself can make conforming to certain demands difficult. For example, not only did Jane have difficulty working when the office was crowded, but she was also hyperactive, which meant that co-workers often commented on her being "away from her desk." She hadn't been able to "sit still" as a student, and as an adult, she looked for any possible excuse to walk around the office.

Some people with learning disabilities read or write at a low-grade level. Unless they are clever at hiding this, they can appear to be different. Whether it's a learning disabled child being laughed at for walking funny or an adult filling out a form incorrectly for the "sixty-eighth time," a learning disability doesn't "show," so it is assumed that the person is purposely behaving in this way.

The emotional price of involuntary non-conformity is high. Too often, children are taught rules such as sitting still and coming to school on time in a punitive rather than positive way. Many became angry at constant unfairness and have somehow linked conformity in their minds with avoiding punishment rather than as a positive achievement. Also, many successful people with learning disabilities become proud of their differences, which can be helpful. "I am different," they decide, "and people should accept me as I am." This is correct. But under the conditions of their lives, they can lose sight of the good feeling that comes from being part of a group.

Overcoming the emotions that result from being hurt for failing to conform as well as the physiological effects of learning disabilities can be a challenge. As a matter of fact, in some cases, it is simply impossible. Nevertheless, the effort can reap rewards such as friendship, promotions at work, and effectiveness in social change. Here are some ideas for people with learning disabilities.

First, ask yourself how much your learning disability is affecting your ability to conform to hidden or written "rule." You are the only one who knows whether doing what "everyone else is doing" is impossible, stressful, or easy.

Based on the answers to this question, decide what you are willing to do to fit in. For example, Charles had a loud voice and an unusual speech rhythm. People thought he was arrogant when he spoke. He certainly did not want to give this impression, so he chose to work on his tone of voice. Since he had trouble hearing himself speak in situations with high background noise, it wasn't easy, but after several years he succeeded. It is important to choose to "fit in," rather than feeling as if you are giving in to an oppressive system. You do not have to give in. You can choose to keep behaviors that irritate others and accept or even fight the consequences. You can also choose to change.

After you have made your decision, begin to manage your decision begin to manage yourself to achieve your goal. I have found the concept of self-management to be more effective than self-discipline because self-discipline can lead to self-punishment and compulsion. As a self-manager, you treat yourself as a good manager would treat you - as a valuable resource. That means treating yourself as you should have been treated when growing up, not how you were treated. Don't yell at yourself when you don't succeed. Treat yourself gently. Here are the techniques that Jane used when she set the goal of getting to work on time:

She used affirmations and self-talk. With this technique, she made a statement to herself about the change she wanted to make as if it were already true. This imprinted the new idea firmly in her unconscious as well as the conscious mind. Jane told herself, "I easily arrive at work on time." She would imagine her office clock saying 8:00 as she proudly strode in. Visualization of desired behavior also helps to "reprogram" the mind.

She felt proud of herself every time she arrived at work on time. For awhile, she had been feeling ashamed of having problems in the first place and/or for giving in to the company's rules. She came to understand that by arriving on time, she was showing her superiors and co-workers that she could be trusted. Many people have a need for predictability from others.

She organized her grooming routines to do everything she could at night.

She gave up most of her evening social activities to insure sufficient sleep.

Jane's self-management plan worked well, but she decided the price was too high. She was working a sixty-hour week, and she found herself surviving as she had in high school - all work and no play. Her learning disabilities were getting worse under the pressure. She picked up the memorandum a month after she put it down. She hoped she could be a member of the team, but be permitted to get to work at a different time. She hoped that she had shown team membership in other ways and that her employer, who knew about her learning disabilities, would be helpful. She was confident that her productivity would make it worthwhile.

How can parents help children develop a sense of teamwork, so that as adults, they can show success like Jane's? Clearly, everybody's first group is the family. So love, caring, and structure provide the background for a sense of teamwork. Help your child find groups where he can be successful. Teach your child the details he needs to participate smoothly with others. Help him to kneel when everyone else kneels in a church service and put his hands on his heart with the audience before the Pledge of Allegiance is said. The feeling of doing what everyone else is doing is a powerful one - and the feeling of not being able to keep up is equally powerful. Of course, the most important issue is loving children as they are - learning disabilities and all.

The challenge of conformity is a major one. A more important issue for those with learning disabilities is developing our strengths so that the demands for "fitting in" are lessened. It is inefficient to work so hard at overcoming our handicaps that we lack energy to do what we do best. We should march to the beat of a different drummer. But we need at least to hear the drummer to whom others march.

About the Author

Dale S. Brown is an author and advocate for individuals with learning disabilities including NLD. She gave a workshop on employment at the 2003 N|LDA conference in San Franciso, California. he has written five books, including Learning A Living, A Guide to Planning Your Career for People with Learning Disabilities, Attention Deficit Disorder and Dyslexia.

This article is used with permission from the Learning Disabilities Association of America; Copyright (c) 1988, Learning Disabilities Association of America, Pittsburgh, PA.

Dale S. Brown