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What are learning disabilities?

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.

Learning disabilities (LD) vary from person to person. One person with learning disabilities may not have the same kind of learning problems as another person with learning disabilities. One person may have trouble with reading and writing. Another person with learning disabilities may have problems with understanding math. Still another person may have trouble in each 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.

The definition of “learning disability” just below comes from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA is the federal law that guides how schools provide special education and related services to children with disabilities.

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

IDEA’s Definition of “Learning Disability”

Our nation’s special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 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 primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage”. 34 Code of Federal Regulations §300.7(c)(10)

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 3 million children (ages 6 through 21) have some form of a learning disability and receive special education in school. In fact, over half of all children who receive special education have a learning disability (Twenty-fourth Annual Report to Congress, U.S. Department of Education, 2002).

What about school and learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities tend to be diagnosed when children reach school age. This is because school focuses on the very things that may be difficult for the child – reading, writing, math, listening, speaking, reasoning. Teachers and parents notice that the child is not learning as expected. The school may ask to evaluate the child to see what is causing the problem. Parents can also ask for their child to be evaluated.

With hard work and the proper help, children with learning disabilities can learn more easily and successfully. For school-aged children (including preschoolers), special education and related services are important sources of help. School staff work with the child’s parents to develop an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. This document describes the child’s unique needs. It also describes the special education services that will be provided to meet those needs. These services are provided at no cost to the child or family.

Supports or changes in the classroom (sometimes called accommodations) help most students with learning disabilities. 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).

It’s important to remember that a child’s learning disabilities may need help at home as well as in school.

Is there any treatment for learning disabilities?

The most common treatment for learning disabilities is special education. Specially trained educators may perform a diagnostic educational evaluation assessing the child’s academic and intellectual potential and level of academic performance. Once the evaluation is complete, the basic approach is to teach learning skills by building on the child’s abilities and strengths while correcting and compensating for disabilities and weaknesses. Other professionals such as speech and language therapists also may be involved. Some medications may be effective in helping the child learn by enhancing attention and concentration. Psychological therapies may also be used.


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