Learning Disabilities (LD)

Learning disability is a general term that describes specific kinds of learning problems. A learning disability can cause a person to have trouble learning and using certain skills. The skills most often affected are: reading, writing, listening, speaking, reasoning, and doing math.

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“Learning disabilities” is not the only term used to describe these difficulties. Others include:

  • dyslexia—which refers to difficulties in reading;
  • dysgraphia—which refers to difficulties in writing; and
  • dyscalcula—which refers to difficulties in math.

All of these are considered learning disabilities.

Learning disabilities (LD) vary from person to person. One person with LD may not have the same kind of learning problems as another person with LD. Sara, in our example above, has trouble with reading and writing. Another person with LD may have problems with understanding math. Still another person may have trouble in both of these areas, as well as with understanding what people are saying.

Researchers think that learning disabilities are caused by differences in how a person’s brain works and how it processes information. Children with learning disabilities are not “dumb” or “lazy.” In fact, they usually have average or above average intelligence. Their brains just process information differently.

There is no “cure” for learning disabilities. They are life-long. However, children with LD can be high achievers and can be taught ways to get around the learning disability. With the right help, children with LD can and do learn successfully.

How Common are Learning Disabilities?

Very common! As many as 1 out of every 5 people in the United States has a learning disability. Almost 1 million children (ages 6 through 21) have some form of a learning disability and receive special education in school. In fact, one-third of all children who receive special education have a learning disability (Twenty-Ninth Annual Report to Congress, U.S. Department of Education, 2010).


What Are the Signs of a Learning Disability?

While there is no one “sign” that a person has a learning disability, there are certain clues. We’ve listed a few below. Most relate to elementary school tasks, because learning disabilities tend to be identified in elementary school. This is because school focuses on the very things that may be difficult for the child—reading, writing, math, listening, speaking, reasoning. A child probably won’t show all of these signs, or even most of them. However, if a child shows a number of these problems, then parents and the teacher should consider the possibility that the child has a learning disability.

When a child has a learning disability, he or she:

  • may have trouble learning the alphabet, rhyming words, or connecting letters to their sounds;
  • may make many mistakes when reading aloud, and repeat and pause often;
  • may not understand what he or she reads;
  • may have real trouble with spelling;
  • may have very messy handwriting or hold a pencil awkwardly;
  • may struggle to express ideas in writing;
  • may learn language late and have a limited vocabulary;
  • may have trouble remembering the sounds that letters make or hearing slight differences between words;
  • may have trouble understanding jokes, comic strips, and sarcasm;
  • may have trouble following directions;
  • may mispronounce words or use a wrong word that sounds similar;
  • may have trouble organizing what he or she wants to say or not be able to think of the word he or she needs for writing or conversation;
  • may not follow the social rules of conversation, such as taking turns, and may stand too close to the listener;
  • may confuse math symbols and misread numbers;
  • may not be able to retell a story in order (what happened first, second, third); or
  • may not know where to begin a task or how to go on from there.

If a child has unexpected problems learning to read, write, listen, speak, or do math, then teachers and parents may want to investigate more. The same is true if the child is struggling to do any one of these skills. The child may need to be evaluated to see if he or she has a learning disability.

About the Evaluation Process

If you are concerned that your child may have a learning disability, contact his or her school and request that the school conduct an individualized evaluation under IDEA (the nation’s special education law) to see if, in fact, a learning disability is causing your child difficulties in school.

To learn more about evaluation, visit http://prntexas.org/evaluating-children-for-disability/

What if the School System Declines to Evaluate Your Child?

If the school doesn’t think that your child’s learning problems are caused by a learning disability, it may decline to evaluate your child. If this happens, there are specific actions you can take. These include:

Contact your state’s Parent Training and Information Center (PTI) for assistance. The PTI can offer you guidance and support in what to do next. Find your PTI by visiting our Find Your PTI map.

Consider having your child evaluated by an independent evaluator.  You may have to pay for this evaluation, or you can ask that the school pay for it. To learn more about independent evaluations, have a look at Right to Request an Independent Evaluation.

Ask for mediation, or use one of IDEA’s other dispute resolution options. Parents have the right to disagree with the school’s decision not to evaluate their child and be heard. To find out more about dispute resolution options, here’s a quick read, Five Options, 1-2-3.

IDEA’s Definition of “Specific Learning Disability”

Not surprisingly, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) includes a definition of “specific learning disability” —as follows:

(10) Specific learning disability —(i) General. Specific learning disability means 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 the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.

(ii) Disorders not included. Specific learning disability does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of intellectual disability, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. [34 CFR §300.8(c)(10)]

IDEA also lists evaluation procedures that must be used at a minimum to identify and document that a child has a specific learning disability. These will now be discussed in brief.

Additional Evaluation Procedures for LD

Now for the confusing part! The ways in which children are identified as having a learning disability have changed over the years. Until recently, the most common approach was to use a “severe discrepancy” formula. This referred to the gap, or discrepancy, between the child’s intelligence or aptitude and his or her actual performance. However, in the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA, how LD is determined has been expanded. IDEA now requires that states adopt criteria that:

  • must not require the use of a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement in determining whether a child has a specific learning disability;
  • must permit local educational agencies (LEAs) to use a process based on the child’s response to scientific, research-based intervention; and
  • may permit the use of other alternative research-based procedures for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability.

Basically, what this means is that, instead of using a severe discrepancy approach to determining LD, school systems may provide the student with a research-based intervention and keep close track of the student’s performance. Analyzing the student’s response to that intervention (RTI) may then be considered by school districts in the process of identifying that a child has a learning disability.

There are also other aspects required when evaluating children for LD. These include observing the student in his or her learning environment (including the regular education setting) to document academic performance and behavior in the areas of difficulty.

This entire fact sheet could be devoted to what IDEA requires when children are evaluated for a learning disability. Instead, let us refer you to a training module on the subject. It’s quite detailed, but if you would like to know those details, read through Module 11 of the Building the Legacy curriculum on IDEA 2004, Identification of Specific Learning Disabilities, available online at CPIR.

Moving on, let us suppose that the student has been diagnosed with a specific learning disability. What next?

What About School?

Once a child is evaluated and found eligible for special education and related services, school staff and parents meet and develop what is known as an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. This document is very important in the educational life of a child with learning disabilities. It describes the child’s needs and the services that the public school system will provide free of charge to address those needs.

Supports or changes in the classroom (called accommodations) help most students with LD. Common accommodations are listed in the “Tips for Teachers” section below. Accessible instructional materials (AIM) are among the most helpful to students whose LD affects their ability to read and process printed language. Thanks to IDEA 2004, there are numerous places to turn now for AIMs. We’ve listed one central source in the “Resources Especially for Teachers” section.

Assistive technology can also help many students work around their learning disabilities. Assistive technology can range from “low-tech” equipment such as tape recorders to “high-tech” tools such as reading machines (which read books aloud) and voice recognition systems (which allow the student to “write” by talking to the computer). To learn more about AT for students who have learning disabilities, visit LD Online’s Technology section, at: http://www.ldonline.org/indepth/technology