A learning disability is a specific impairment of academic learning that interferes with a specific aspect of schoolwork and that reduces a student’s academic performance significantly. A learning disability shows itself as a major discrepancy between a student’s ability and some feature of achievement.
The student may be delayed in reading, writing, listening, speaking, or doing mathematics, but not in all of these at once.
A learning problem is not considered a learning disability if it stems from physical, sensory or motor handicaps or from generalised intellectual impairment (or mental retardation). It is also not a learning disability if the learning problem really reflects the challenges of learning English as a second language. Genuine learning disabilities are the learning problems left over after these other possibilities are accounted for or excluded.
Typically, a student with a learning disability has not been helped by teachers’ ordinary efforts to assist the student when he or she falls behind academically. What counts as an ‘ordinary effort’, of course, differs among teachers, schools and students. Most importantly, though, a learning disability relates to a fairly specific area of academic learning. A student may be able to read and compute well enough, for example, but not be able to write.
Learning disabilities are by far the most common form of special educational need.
In the United States, learning disabilities account for half of all students with special educational needs and anywhere from 5 to 20 per cent of all students, depending on how the numbers are estimated (United States Department of Education, 2005; Ysseldyke & Bielinski, 2002).
Students with learning disabilities are so common, in fact, that most teachers regularly encounter at least one per class in any given school year, regardless of the class level they teach.
Defining learning disabilities clearly
With so many students defined as having learning disabilities, it is not surprising that the term itself becomes ambiguous in the truest sense of ‘having many meanings’. Specific features of learning disabilities vary considerably.
Any of the following students, for example, qualify as having a learning disability, assuming that they have no other disease, condition or circumstance to account for their behaviour:
• Albert, an eighth-grader, has trouble solving word problems that he reads, but can solve them easily if he hears them orally.
• Bill, also in eighth grade, has the reverse problem: he can solve word problems only when he can read them, not when he hears them.
• Carole, a fifth-grader, constantly makes errors when she reads textual material aloud, either leaving out words, adding words or substituting her own words for the printed text.
• Emily, in seventh grade, has terrible handwriting; her letters vary in size and wobble all over the page, much like a first- or second-grader.
• Sarah, a tenth-grader, adds multiple-digit numbers as if they were single-digit numbers stuck together: 42 + 59 equals 911 rather than 101, though 23 + 54 correctly equals 77.
With so many expressions of learning disabilities, it is not surprising that educators sometimes disagree about their nature and about the kind of help students need as a consequence.
Such controversy may be inevitable because learning disabilities by definition are learning problems with no obvious origin. Common to all educators though is a belief that a variety of solutions for helping students with learning disabilities should be experimented with.