What is a Learning Disability

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  • What is a Learning Disability

Disability is an educational term whereas disorder is a medical term. In education we are bound by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Illness (DSM-V) which is a medical manual, used in education in order to provide special education services for students. Learning disabilities is a term for a number of disorders which may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding and/or use of verbal or nonverbal information. These disorders affect learning in individuals who otherwise demonstrate average abilities essential for thinking and/or reasoning.

Learning disabilities are due to genetic and/or neurobiological factors or injury that alters brain functioning in one or more processes related to language-based learning (and may coexist with various conditions including attention, behaviour or emotion based disorders, sensory impairments or other medical conditions).

Signs of a Learning Disability

Learning disabilities range in severity and may interfere with the acquisition and use of one or more of the following:

  • Verbal skills (e.g. listening, speaking, understanding)
  • Reading skills (e.g. decoding, phonetic knowledge, word recognition, comprehension)
  • Written language (e.g. spelling, written expression)
  • Mathematics (e.g. computation, problem solving)
  • Organizational skills (eg. ability to focus and plan to achieve desired outcome)
  • Social skills (eg. understanding social interactions, body language, expression)
  • Executive functions (e.g. planning and decision-making)

These disabilities are not due primarily to hearing and/or vision problems, socio-economic factors, cultural or linguistic differences, lack of motivation or ineffective teaching, although these factors may further complicate the challenges faced by individuals with learning disabilities.

How to Support Someone With Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities are lifelong. The way in which they are expressed may vary over an individual’s lifetime, depending on the interaction between the demands of an environment and the individual’s needs. 

For success, individuals with learning disabilities require early identification through timely specialized assessments. 

Interventions involving home, school, community and workplace settings must consider the individual’s learning disability subtype and, at a minimum, include the provision of:

  • Accommodations and adaptations
  • Compensatory strategies
  • Specific skill instruction
  • Self-advocacy skills