What Is a Learning Disability?

Dr. Robb Mapou Health Guide
  • So what, exactly is a learning disability, and where did this term come from? According to Dr. Roger Brumback and a number of others who have recounted the history of the concept, the term "learning disability" was first used by Dr. Samuel Kirk, a professor of education at the University of Illinois, in 1963. Dr. Kirk was addressing a conference on "Problems of the Perceptually Handicapped Child" and told the audience:

    I have used the term "learning disabilities" to describe a group of children who have disorders in development in language, speech, reading, and associated communication skills needed for social interaction. In this group I do not include children who have sensory handicaps such as blindness or deafness, because we have methods of managing and training the deaf and the blind. I also exclude from this group children who have generalized mental retardation. (Kirk 1963 as cited in Brumback, 2004)

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    Dr. Brumback went on to write that shortly after this lecture, audience members organized a new grassroots organization, the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities, which eventually became the now familiar Learning Disabilities Association of America.

    The term "learning disabilities" eventually became a part of special education law in the late 1960s, and the first definition of learning disabilities was included in PL-94-172, the Education for All Handicapped Children's Act. This is the well-known Congressional Act that, in 1975, became the first federal law to mandate identification of and services for children with disabilities of all types. This definition, which may be familiar to many of you, states:

    Specific learning disability means 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. The term includes such conditions as perceptual handicaps, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include children who have learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps; of mental retardation; of emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

    Amazingly, despite many years of research, this same definition still appears as part of federal law on learning disabilities and, most recently, was included in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004; For an excellent history of the term "learning disabilities", the book Learning Disabilities: From Identification to Intervention, by Jack Fletcher and colleagues). Another definition of learning disabilities (which I like better from my vantage point as a neuropsychologist working with adults) was developed by the Rehabilitation Services Administration in 1985, to provide a way of identifying adults with learning disabilities who were requesting accommodations and vocational rehabilitation services. This definition states that:

  • A specific learning disability is a disorder in one or more of the central nervous system processes involved in perceiving, understanding, and/or using concepts through verbal (spoken or written) language or nonverbal means. This disorder manifests itself with a deficit in one or more of the following areas: attention, reasoning, processing, memory, communication, reading, writing, spelling, calculation, coordination, social competence, and emotional maturity.

    I like this definition better because it indicates that learning disabilities are brain-based disorders and that they can selectively affect a number of different skills. The earlier federal definition did not consider these points, especially because it was designed for school children. However, wanting to recognize the unique problems that adults with learning disabilities encounter, as well as recognizing how disabilities are defined by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA; more on that later), I developed my own definition of a learning disability in the late 1990s, which I first published in 2004 and revised in for my 2009 book. My definition states that:

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    A learning disability is a neurodevelopmental disorder affecting a specific academic and/or cognitive skill that occurs in the presence of intact skills in most other realms. The specific impairments are presumed to be due to dysfunction of the brain and to have been present since birth, although their impact may not become fully obvious until later in life. Although most learning disabilities affect academic skills (reading, writing, mathematics) and the associated underlying neuropsychological functions needed for these skills, a learning disability can also affect specific areas of neuropsychological functioning, including attention, executive functions and problem-solving abilities, spoken language, visuospatial skills, or learning and memory. A learning disability substantially limits functioning in one or more aspects of a person's life (e.g., school, work, home, social). It is not better explained by an acquired neurological disorder that occurs either in childhood or later in life, mental retardation, or a pervasive developmental disorder, It is also not due primarily to cultural factors, psychosocial factors, psychiatric disorder, or lack of education, although it may co-exist with these factors.

    OK, so you are asking, "What does all of this mean for me, for my child, for my spouse/partner, or for my relative?" It means that a person with a learning disability has a very specific weakness in a specific skill or skills, but is not weak in most areas that are needed to function on an every day basis. It does not mean, for example, that a person with a learning disability is stupid, will never finish high school, will never go to college, or, for that matter, cannot be a doctor, a lawyer, or a high-level business professional.


    In fact, in my own work, I have evaluated many people in advanced professions, whose learning disabilities have affected them in some way. But, unfortunately, many have also been told that they are stupid or that they will never amount to much. To their credit, they have frequently proven those assessments to be wrong and have gone on to success. Just think, for example, of the many famous people who have disclosed that they struggled with reading, writing, or math when growing up. I recently heard a story about Henry Winkler, who struggled with dyslexia, a specific type of reading disability that I will discuss in a subsequent piece, and was honored for his work at the Lab School of Washington. When there, instead of reading his remarks, he is reported to have asked someone to read the remarks to him, which he quickly memorized and then presented flawlessly. The bottom line, then, is that if a learning disability is properly evaluated, interventions and supports can be put in place to help the person with the learning disability succeed.

  • In my next several blogs, I will tell you what do we know about specific learning disabilities from a scientific perspective. I will start with dyslexia, which is the most common, but, perhaps, most misunderstood, learning disability.

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    Brumback, R. A. (2004). Warren A. Weinberg: Pioneer in the field of learning disabilities. Journal of Child Neurology, 19, 737.

    Fletcher, J. M., Lyon, G. R., Fuchs, L. S., & Barnes, M. A. (2007). Learning disabilities: From identification to intervention. New York: Guilford Press.

    IDEA. (1990). Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act of 1990, Public Law 101-476, 104 Stat. 1142.

    Mapou, R. L. (2009). Adult learning disabilities and ADHD: Research-informed assessment. New York: Oxford University Press.


Published On: June 28, 2010