What is a Learning Disability?

"Learning disability" is a term
that describes both universal
problems in learning and a
specific category of students
eligible for special educational
services under U.S. law. The
term is used generically in
psychopathology to refer to
difficulties in learning, such as
those caused by mental dis-
abilities, as opposed to  
difficulties in relating to others (which might be caused by emotional or behavioral
disorders). Learning disabilities is used more particularly in education to refer to a group
of children and youth who, despite having the apparent benefits of normal intelligence,
adequate instruction, and general emotional or behavioral stability, experience unusual
difficulty in succeeding in school.
Among categories of special education learning disabilities constitute the most recently
defined. Although some states recognized learning disabilities as a category requiring
special educational services and provided financial support for it in the early 1960s, it
was not broadly accepted until the mid-1970s when the federal government included
learning disabilities in the landmark legislation commonly referred to as PL 94-142 of
the Education of the Handicapped Act (1975). Since that time, the category has grown
rapidly and accounts for nearly 5% of the school-age population and over 50% of the
students receiving special education services.

Although learning disabilities are defined by academic deficits, extensive research has
been conducted to identify the sources of problems in apprehending school skills and
knowledge. Students with learning disabilities manifest a wide variety of characteristics
that are associated with underachievement. However, because individuals with learning
disabilities do not form a homogeneous group, few characteristics are common to all
individuals who have these disabilities. Among the most common characteristics are
deficits in the ability to understand specific aspects of language such as segmenting
words into component sounds or deriving meaning from complex sentences, to
remember information, and to direct attention to specific aspects of displays or
situations. Although these difficulties are often presumed to be the result of subtle
neurological problems, the causes have not been firmly established.

Treatment of learning disabilities has produced controversy. Because the problems
experienced by these individuals are diverse and baffling, the field has attracted some
treatments of questionable value, and the quack-like character of certain treatments has
encouraged some people to dismiss the field. However, extensive research has
revealed several consistencies in successful interventions. In the schools, these
consistencies include instruction that explicitly teaches students how to perform tasks;
requires them to practice applying learned skills to disparate rather than a limited range
of examples; relates these skills to each other and to their uses in other areas; and
encourages students to deploy these skills in a purposeful manner when approaching
tasks, to monitor whether their actions are achieving desired ends, and to attribute their
successes to consistent application of their plans. In addition to instructional treatments,
some individuals with learning disabilities also benefit from other therapies including the
use of certain medications and counseling services.

John Wills Lloyd

Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia (1996)
Bibliography: Hallahan, D. P., Kauffman, J. M., and Lloyd, J. W., Introduction to Learning Disabilities, 2d ed.
(1985); Lovitt, Thomas, Introduction to Learning Disabilities (1989); Mastropieri, Margo A., and Scruggs,
Thomas E., Effective Instruction for Special Education (1987); Scruggs, T., and Wong, B. Y. L., Intervention
Research in Learning Disabilities (1990); Singh, N. N., and Beale, I. L., Learning Disabilities: Nature, Theory,
and Treatment (1991); Swanson, H. L., Handbook on the Assessment of Learning Disabilities: Theory,
Research, and Practice (1991).
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