What is a Learning Disability?
A learning disability is a disorder that affects the brain’s ability to understand receive, process, and utilize certain kinds of information. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), a specific learning disorder is diagnosed when an individual has difficulty learning and using academic skills despite remedial interventions, academic skills are significantly below average for one’s age and grade, and this is not better accounted for by factors such as intellectual disability, visual or auditory deficits, or other mental or neurological disorders.
A specific learning disability in the domain of reading (which is often referred to as dyslexia) typically manifests in problems with word reading accuracy, slow reading rate or poor fluency, and/or trouble with reading comprehension. Dyslexia is often overlooked, especially in kids who are very bright, and those who compensate by working twice as hard as their peers.
A specific learning disability in the area of written expression will typically impact spelling accuracy, grammar and punctuation accuracy, as well as clarity and organization of written material.
A specific learning disability in the domain of mathematics manifests in poor number sense, difficulty memorizing arithmetic facts, difficulty with calculation, and impaired math reasoning ability. These kids often stand out because they have strong academic skills, but “can’t get” math.
According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, approximately 5% of children in public schools in the U.S. are classified as having specific learning disabilities and receive some kind of special education support. These statistics do not include children in private schools or home-schooled children. And, importantly, these statistics do not include the large number of children with learning disabilities that have not been identified.
Diagnosing a Learning Disability
Although learning disabilities are present from a very young age, they are often not identified until early to middle elementary school, when academic tasks start to become more challenging. Typically, the process of diagnosing a learning disability involves an assessment in which cognitive and achievement tests are administered, and scores are compared with one another. In most cases, a significant discrepancy between the cognitive scores and scores on one or more achievement tests suggests that a learning disability exists. Feedback from parents and teachers is also a very important part of determining the presence of a learning disability.
Treatment for learning disabilities depends on the severity of the disorder. In mild cases, the child is able to continue on a regular education track, with extra support in the way of specialized tutoring. Traditional academic tutoring is not effective for children with learning disabilities. In more severe cases, educational accommodations (e.g. extra time on tests, audiobooks) are crucial. The degree of special education services depends on the type and severity of the disorder. As with many other childhood disorders, early diagnosis and intervention of learning disabilities will increase a child’s chances for future success.
Support for individuals with learning disabilities is required by law, and extends beyond grade school. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1997 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 were put in place to ensure that people of all ages with learning disabilities are protected against discrimination and have a right to different forms of accommodation and assistance in the classroom and in the workplace. Individuals with documented learning disabilities are also eligible for accommodations during “high-stakes” testing, such as the SAT and ACT, as well as graduate school admissions exams (GRE, MCAT, GMAT, and LSAT).