Learning Disabilities

Learning disability is a general term that describes specific kinds of learning problems. It is thought to be a neurological or processing disorder that affects the brain’s ability to receive, process, store, and respond to information. It can cause a person to have difficulty learning and using certain skills despite having at least average intelligence. The skills most often affected are reading, writing, listening, speaking, reasoning, and doing math.

The legal definition of learning disability comes from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This is a federal law that guides how schools provide special education and related services to children with disabilities. IDEA defines a specific learning disability as “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.” However, learning disabilities do not include learning problems that are mainly the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. Many states use a discrepancy formula to define learning disability. That is, the student shows a gap, often of 2 years or more, between his or her IQ score and achievement level in a particular area.

How Common Are Learning Disabilities?

As many as one in five people in the United States has a learning disability. About 5% of the total population of all school-age children receive special education or related services because of a learning disability. The percentage of children classified as learning disabled has increased substantially—from less than 30% of all children receiving special education services in 1997–1998 to a little more than 50% today.

About three times as many boys as girls are classified as learning disabled. The gender difference has been given several explanations, such as greater biological vulnerability for boys and because boys are more likely to be referred as a result of their disruptive, hyperactive behavior. Social class is associated with learning disability because the risk for exposure to harmful toxins, such as lead and tobacco, at early stages of development is greater in low-income communities.

The most common learning disability is reading disability, especially phonological skills, which involve understanding how sounds and letters match up to make words. Dyslexia is a severe impairment in the ability to read and spell.

One of the most talked about learning disabilities is attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). About one third of people with a learning disability also have ADHD. It is characterized by extreme hyperactivity and distractibility, which makes it difficult for them to concentrate, stay focused, or manage their attention to specific tasks. Treatment has typically been in the form of either mild stimulants such as Ritalin or behavior modification techniques.

Consequences Of Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities affect every person differently. Most learning disabilities are lifelong. Compared to people without a learning disability, those with a learning disability are more likely to show poor academic performance, high dropout rates, and poor employment.

Children with a learning disability who are taught in the regular classroom without extensive support rarely achieve the level of competence of even children who are low achieving and do not have a disability. However, with appropriate help, people with learning disabilities can and do learn successfully. They can be high achievers and can be taught ways to get around the learning disability. Despite the difficulties they encounter, many children with learning disabilities grow up to lead normal lives and carry on productive work.

Causes Of Learning Disability

Experts are not exactly sure what causes learning disabilities. A leading theory is that learning disabilities stem from subtle disturbances in brain structures and functions, which in many cases begin before birth. Heredity may be a factor because learning disabilities tend  to  run  in  families.  Learning  disabilities  may be caused by drug or alcohol use during pregnancy, illness or injury during pregnancy or labor, low birth weight, lack of oxygen, and premature or prolonged labor. After birth, the occurrence of head injuries, nutritional deprivation, and exposure to toxic substances such as lead are associated with learning disabilities. Learning disabilities are not caused by economic disadvantage, environmental factors, or cultural differences. In many cases, there is no apparent cause for the learning disability.


There is no one sign or set of clues that a person has a learning disability. Experts look for a noticeable difference between how well a child does in school and how well the child could do, given his or her intelligence and ability. Some signs of learning disabilities are listed here. Most of them relate to elementary school tasks because learning disabilities tend to be identified in elementary school. If a child shows a number of these problems, the possibility that a learning disability is present should be considered. When a child has a learning disability, he or she may have difficulty learning the alphabet or rhyming words, have difficulty with spelling, struggle to express ideas in writing, have messy handwriting or hold a pencil awkwardly, learn language late and have a small vocabulary, not know where to begin a task or how to proceed, or not be able to retell a story in order. These are only a few of the potential signs of a learning disability.

If there is reason to believe a person has a learning disability, it is important to collect observations by parents, teachers, doctors, and others regularly in contact with that person. If there does seem to be a pattern of difficulty that is more than just an isolated case of trouble, the next step is to seek help from school or consult a learning specialist for an evaluation.

It is better to identify learning disabilities early so that appropriate educational opportunities can be provided. Observe the way the child develops language, motor coordination, and social skills and behaviors important for success in school. Not all children who are slow to develop skills have a learning disability. There are very large individual differences in development.

Intervention Strategies

There is no single intervention or treatment for learning disability. In general, effective interventions that use a combined model of strategy instruction and direct instruction in the skill area are most effective. Recommended instructional strategies include small interactive groups, peer tutoring or mentoring, technology such as computer training programs, augmentation of teacher instruction using homework or other extra practice, directed questioning, and strategy cueing.

Reading disability has received the most research attention. The most common core deficit for those with reading disability is a deficit in phonological processing skills, especially phonological awareness, which is associated with difficulty learning to decode and recognize words. Individuals typically have difficulty translating a written word into units of sound. In other words, most cases of reading disability are associated with a deficit in verbal language skills, not in visual skills. It is a common misperception that dyslexic people reverse letters. Interventions designed to improve phonological awareness and letter knowledge skills have proven to be moderately effective. This is especially true if the intervention is begun early, is intensive, and is carried out by trained personnel.

Learning Disability And The Classroom

Depending on the type and severity of the learning disability, as well as the person’s age, different kinds of assistance can be provided. In 1975, the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 94-142, the Education for all Handicapped Children Act, which mandated for the first time that all U.S. children, regardless of handicap, were entitled to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment possible. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) of 1997, which renamed the 1975 law, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, people of all ages with learning disability are protected against discrimination and have a right to different forms of assistance in the classroom and workplace. These protections are not designed to provide an advantage for the person with the learning disability but instead to provide them with the assistance they need to learn in an appropriate environment. This assistance is prescribed by law and is to be provided at public expense.

Mainstreaming, the educational practice of including special education students in regular classrooms for parts of the school day, and full inclusion, placing the special education student in the regular classroom for the full day, have become more common. This has been partially in response to calls to reduce the stigma of being labeled as learning disabled, to expose the learning disabled child to the real world, and to provide the learning disabled child access to more advanced curricular content. The research on the effects of mainstreaming are inconclusive, based on a small number of studies, and focused more on children with mild learning disabilities than with moderate and severe disabilities. The general conclusion at this time is that there is a small to moderate beneficial effect of inclusive education on the academic and social outcomes of special-needs children. However, this effect should be evaluated in terms of the type and severity of the learning disability, the quality of training provided to the teacher, and the level and kinds of support available in the school system.


Learning disability is a complex topic. It is very common, but there remains much debate about how to identify and serve the needs of those with a learning disability.


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  2. National Center for Learning Disabilities, http://www.ld.org
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