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What is a Learning Disability?

Overview

Learning disabilities refer to a number of disorders that may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding or use of verbal or nonverbal information. These disorders affect learning in individuals who otherwise demonstrate at least average abilities essential for thinking and/or reasoning. Learning disabilities result from impairments in one or more processes related to perceiving, thinking, remembering or learning. 

Learning disabilities range in severity, therefore each individual with a LD is unique and the disability manifests in varying combinations and degrees of difficulty.  Often, the individual with a learning disability demonstrates uneven areas of ability and has a gap between his/her potential and actual achievement.

A LD remains with an individual for life; however, many individuals develop compensatory strategies useful in managing their disabilities.  With appropriate support and intervention, people with LDs can achieve success in the learning and training environments, at work, and in the community.

Definition

A learning disability (LD) is a neurobiological condition that affects the way individuals of average to above average intelligence:

  • Receive information
  • Process information
  • Store Information
  • Retrieve information
  • Express information

LD can affect one or more stages of information processing that are used in learning which include:

  • Input - the way new information is taken in
  • Integration - the way information is organized and understood
  • Memory - the way we store information, so we can retrieve it again later
  • Output - the way we communicate and express information

When an individual has a LD that affects part or parts of this process, it has the potential to negatively impact their ability to acquire basic skills of:

  • listening
  • speaking
  • thinking
  • reading
  • spelling
  • writing
  • mathematics
  • organization
  • social interaction

Symptoms

Individuals with LD exhibit a wide range of symptoms that can cause difficulties in the areas of:

  • reading
  • math
  • comprehension
  • writing
  • spoken language
  • reasoning abilities

Hyperactivity, inattention and perceptual coordination also may be associated with LD but are not learning disabilities themselves.

Possible indicators of a learning disability include the following:

  • Ability does not match achievement whether in academic areas, in functional behaviors, or in employment outcomes
  • Seems bright, highly intelligent, and articulate but unable to read, write, or spell at grade level
  • Easily frustrated and emotional about school, reading, or testing
  • Feels dumb, has poor self-esteem, and/or hides or covers up weaknesses (e.g., acts out in class with negative behaviors or is the class clown)
  • Seems to "zone out" or daydream often
  • Tests well orally but not in written format

When considering symptoms related to LD, remember:

  • No one has all of the symptoms.
  • Some symptoms are more common than others.
  • Everyone has at least two or three LD symptoms to some degree.
  • Learning difficulties are not the same as LD. Are the symptoms chronic and not diminished or alleviated with appropriate instruction?
  • Learning disabilities do not manifest themselves in individuals in exactly the same way and can range from mild to severe.
  • Learning disabilities can present differently from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. These changes can pose new challenges or issues for the individual and may require different interventions or accommodations.

Types of Learning Disabilities

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V), the Learning Disability Association (LDA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) 2004 present slightly different definitions of SLD:​

DSM V ​LDA IDEIA
SLD is a type of Neurodevelopmental Disorder that impedes the ability to learn or use specific academic skills (e.g., reading,  writing,  or  arithmetic),  which  are  the  foundation  for  other  academic  learning A learning disability is a neurological condition that interferes with an individual’s ability to store, process, or produce information.  Learning disabilities can affect one’s ability to read, write, speak, spell, compute math, reason and also affect an individual’s attention, memory, coordination, social skills and emotional maturity SLD is a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.

 

The table describes some of the more common types of LD:

Learning Disability Area(s) of Impact Symptoms
Dyslexia Oral and written language Difficulty with listening, speaking, reading, and writing; Sees letters or words reversed; Sees letters or words transposed; Omits letters or words when reading
Dyscalculia Math Difficulty performing calculations; Difficulty with numbers; Spatial problems; Difficulty placing numbers into vertical columns
Dysgraphia Writing Illegible handwriting; Difficulty writing within a defined space; Letter reversals; Letter transposition; Omission of letters or words; Poor spelling
Dyspraxia Body coordination Problems with muscle control and coordination; Apparent clumsiness
Sensory Processing Perception Problems understanding visual and auditory information
Specific Learning Disability Oral and/or written language, math, reading, writing, and perception Difficulty understanding or using language, whether written or spoken; Imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, write, read, spell, or do mathematical calculations

Executive Function and LDs

Executive functioning deficits are often seen in individuals who have a learning disability. Executive Functioning Deficits is the term used to describe weaknesses in the ability to:
  • Plan/organize/strategize 
  • Problem-solve
  • Initiate and complete tasks
  • Transition between tasks
  • Remember details
  • Manage time and space efficiently 

What LD is Not

  • Economic disadvantage
  • Emotional disorders
  • Lack of educational opportunities due to:
    • ​English as a second language/Limited English proficient
    • Normal process of learning a second languag
    • Frequent changes of schools
    • Lack of instruction in basic skills
    • Poor school attendance
    • Intellectual disability

Resources

General
Job Corps Specific

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