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What is a learning disability?
There are several types of learning disabilities, including dyslexia, dysgraphia, disorder of written expression, dyscalculia, and a nonverbal learning disability (NVLD).
What exactly is a “learning disability?” That’s been debated, however, although there are multiple definitions, most definitions have several common components to them.
Learning disabilities are one of 13 classifications or “tickets of admission” for Special Education services. For the purposes of qualifying for Special Education services, a learning disability is defined as:
A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which manifests itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations (NYS Education Department, p12.nysed.gov).
In other words, a learning disability can be understood as difficulty processing certain kinds of information in a way that interferes with reading, writing, or math.
The legal definition goes on to say that a learning disability does not include:
learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of an intellectual disability, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.
A learning disability, by definition, is due to a problem with how the brain processes information. As the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities puts it, learning disabilities are, “intrinsic to the individual, presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction” (ldonline.org). Therefore, if the reason a student is having trouble learning is only because s/he has not received proper instruction (e.g. a student who is disadvantaged) or because of his or her eyesight or hearing, then, by definition, the problem is not a “learning disability.”
A learning disability also refers to a primary learning problem. That is, the person has a learning problem because s/he has trouble learning, not that the person has trouble learning because of another problem that interferes with learning, such as an emotional disturbance. For example, a child with dyslexia has trouble reading because s/he has trouble executing the skills needed to read in the first place. On the other hand, a student who has trouble learning only because s/he is depressed, for example, is not considered to have a “learning disability.”
A learning disability is also distinguished from an intellectual disability. Learning disabilities can be thought of as “pockets” of difficulty and are generally (but not necessarily) associated with at least average intelligence. An intellectual disability, by definition, refers to global, broad based impairment, affecting many areas of functioning, including not only intelligence, but also daily living skills, communication skills, social skills, and academic skills in general.
Due to common misconceptions, it cannot be overstated that, it is not that people with learning disabilities don’t learn, it is that they learn differently.
Who has a learning disability?
Pooling many research studies, an estimated 15 – 20% of the population has a learning disability. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, of all the students receiving Special Education services, almost half (42%) or 2.4 million students, have a learning disability.
Historically, students with learning disabilities have been at a higher risk for a range of negative outcomes, such as dropping out of high school. Although there is still much more work to be done, fortunately, with increased awareness and knowledge of what learning disabilities are and how to teach people with them, people with learning disabilities are changing the statistics of the past in important respects. For example, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, more people with learning disabilities are enrolling in secondary education than in the past and they are now attending postsecondary education at the same rate as the general population.
Many famous and highly successful people have / have had learning disabilities, from CEO’s and entrepreneurs to athletes and entertainers. Simply do a search on the internet and you’ll be amazed at the long and varied lists you’ll see!
It is not that people with learning disabilities don’t learn, it is that they learn differently.