Learning Disability

A learning disability is a learning disorder that results in difficulty acquiring knowledge and skills at the level expected at a given age; learning disorders are associated with difficulty speaking, listening, reading, writing, or mathematical ability.

A learning disability is a specific developmental disorder that inhibits or interferes with the skills of learning, including speaking, listening, reading, writing, or mathematical ability. A learning-disabled child is defined legally as one whose level of academic achievement is two or more years below the standard for the child's age and IQ level. However, having a learning disability does not mean an individual child is not able to learn; rather that the individual learns differently. It is estimated that about 20% of school-age children in the United States are diagnosed with learning disabilities, of whom 66% are boys. In 2011, 33% of youngsters with learning disabilities were held back one grade, and 50% were either suspended or expelled from school. High school students with learning disabilities have higher dropout rates than non-disabled students, but 68% graduate with a regular diploma.

Percentage distribution of children ages 3–21 served under individuls with disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Part B, by disabliity type: School year 2012–13

Percentage distribution of children ages 3–21 served under individulswith disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Part B, by disabliity type: School year 2012–13
Source: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) database, retreved October 3, 2014, from https://inventory.data.gov/dataset/8715a3e8-bf48-4eef-9deb-fd9bb76a196e/resource/a68a23f3-3981-47db-ac75-98a167b65259. See Digest of Education Statistics 2014, table 204.30.

Learning disabilities may include different areas of functioning and atypical ways of acquiring information. As such, learning disabilities often appear together with other disorders, especially attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These disorders are thought to be caused by irregularities in the functioning of certain parts of the brain. Evidence suggests that these irregularities may be acquired genetically since an individual is more likely to develop a learning disability if other family members have them. However, learning disabilities are also associated with certain conditions occurring during fetal development or birth, including maternal use of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco; oxygen deprivation or injury during birth; or exposure to infection, low birth weight, or sensory deprivation in infancy.

Unfortunately, misconceptions also surround learning disabilities, including that poor diet, vaccinations, or excessive TV watching can cause learning disabilities, none of which are substantiated by research. Some parents also associate learning disabilities with intellectual disabilities, blindness, and deafness, or even laziness. Children with learning disabilities can experience stigma and discrimination from others.

Underachievement may be the first sign of a learning disability. However, other warning signs may include overall lack of organization, forgetfulness, and taking an unusually long time to complete assignments or tasks. If given verbal instruction, only one aspect of a task may be completed and other aspects ignored or forgotten. In the classroom, the child's teacher may observe one or more of the following characteristics: difficulty paying attention, unusual sloppiness and disorganization, social withdrawal, difficulty working independently, and trouble switching from one activity to another. In addition, certain general behavioral and emotional features often accompany learning disabilities, including impulsiveness, restlessness, distractibility, inattentiveness, poor physical coordination, low tolerance for frustration, low self-esteem, lack of motivation, daydreaming, and sometimes anger or sadness.

Types of learning disabilities


This primary source contains information from th U.S. Department of Education on the topic of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA).

Today, due largely to the provision of [Individuals with Disabilities Act] IDEA-supported programs and services together with IDEA support for research, training, and dissemination, children with disabilities are achieving at levels that would not have been imagined in previous decades. Consider the following examples of our county's accomplishments over the past 35 years:

More young children with disabilities receive high-quality early interventions that prevent or reduce the future need for services. IDEA-reported data indicate that rates of identification for young children with disabilities have been steadily increasing over the past 10 years. For infants and toddlers ages birth through 2, the number receiving services under Part C of IDEA has nearly doubled, from 177,281 in 1995 to 321,894 in 2007. For children ages 3–5, the number receiving services under Part B of IDEA has increased by nearly 23 percent, from 548,588 in 1995 to 710,371 in 2007. These increases represent not only improved efforts to identify children at earlier ages, but also an improved capacity to serve these young children and help ensure that they enter school ready to learn.

More children with disabilities are not only attending neighborhood schools but also are receiving access to the general education curriculum and learning a wide variety of academic skills. In 2008, IDEA-reported data indicate that 5,660,491 students with disabilities were educated in general education classrooms for at least part of the day, depending on their individual needs. Thus, 95 percent of all students with disabilities were educated in their local neighborhood schools. In addition, data from the Department's National Assessment of Educational Progress demonstrate increased proficiency over time in reading among fourth-grade students with disabilities. While achievement in reading for students without disabilities has improved only slightly since 2000, averaged scaled scores for students with disabilities increased by more than 20 points between 2000 and 2009. In addition, the percentage of students with disabilities who achieved at or above basic level of proficiency rose from 22 percent in 2000 to 35 percent in 2009. Furthermore, these increases have contributed to a reduction of the achievement gap in reading between students with and without disabilities.

More youths with disabilities graduate from high school. In school year 2007–08, IDEA-reported data indicated that 217,905 students with disabilities, ages 14–21, graduated high school with a regular diploma. There has been a 16-point increase in the percentage of students with disabilities graduating from high school since school year 1996–97. Further, IDEA-reported data from 2007–08 indicate that only 90,766 students with disabilities, ages 14–21, dropped out of high school without graduating

More youths with disabilities are enrolled in postsecondary programs. The rate at which youths with disabilities enrolled in postsecondary education rose from 14.6 percent in 1987 to 31.9 percent in 2005. Enrollment rates increased for both two-and four-year colleges, while enrollment rates decreased for post-secondary vocational, technical, and business schools.

More young adults with disabilities are employed. Trends in the postsecondary employment of youths with disabilities are positive, with an increase of about 15 points in the percentage of out-of-school youths with disabilities who have worked for pay since leaving high school.

SOURCE: “National Impact of IDEA to Date” Thirty-five Years of Progress in Educating Children with Disabilities Throuth IDEA U.S. Department of Education, 2010, p. 1–3.


A learning disorder characterized by difficulty learning or comprehending mathematics; may include difficulty understanding numbers, how to manipulate numbers, and learning mathematical facts.
A learning disorder characterized by difficulty writing coherently; it may affect an individual's fine motor skills and handwriting.
A learning disorder characterized by difficulty reading, which may include problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they related to letters and words.
Sensory deprivation—
The absence or deliberate removal of stimuli from one or more of the senses, including depriving an individual of sight, touch, or hearing.


The principal forms of treatment for learning disabilities are remedial education and psychotherapy. Either may be provided alone, the two may be provided simultaneously, or one may follow the other. Individualized plans are often designed to suit a child's special learning requirements. Schools are required by law to provide specialized instruction or special education for children with learning disabilities. Remediation may take place privately with a tutor or in a school resource center. A remediator works with the child individually, often devising strategies to circumvent the barriers caused by the disability. A child with dyscalcula, for example, may be shown a shortcut or trick that involves memorizing a spatial pattern or design and then superimposing it on calculations of a specific type, such as double-digit multiplication problems. The most important aspect of remediation is finding new ways to solve old problems, which diverges from ordinary tutoring methods that use drill and repetition that are typically ineffective in dealing with learning disabilities. The earlier remediation is begun, the more effective it is. At the same time that they are receiving remedial help, children with learning disabilities spend as much time as possible in the regular classroom.

While remediation addresses the obstacles created by the learning disability itself, psychotherapy deals with the emotional and behavioral problems associated with the condition. The difficulties caused by learning disabilities are bound to affect a child's emotional state and behavior. The inability to succeed at tasks that pose no unusual problems for one's peers creates a variety of unpleasant feelings, including shame, doubt, embarrassment, frustration, anger, confusion, fear, and sadness. These feelings pose several dangers if they are allowed to persist over time. First, they may aggravate the disability: excessive stress can interfere with the performance of many tasks, especially those that are difficult to begin with. In addition, other, previously developed abilities may suffer as well, further eroding the child's self-confidence. Finally, destructive emotional and behavioral patterns that begin in response to a learning disability may become entrenched and extend to other areas of a child's life. Both psychoanalytic and behaviorally oriented methods are used in therapy for children with learning disabilities.

Sensitivity to the needs of students with learning disabilities continues to increase and has been extended to adults as well in some sectors. Some learning disabled adults have been accommodated by special measures such as extra time on projects at work. They may also be assigned tasks that do not require extensive written communication. For example, a learning disabled person might take customer service phone calls, rather than reading and processing customer comment cards.

Learning disabilities are lifelong, affecting not only children but young adults in college and adults of any age in the workplace. About 4.6 million Americans self-reported having learning disabilities in the 2010 U.S. Census. Because learning disabilities have no actual cure, they continue to affect the lives of learning-disabled people, and the strategies individuals may have learned to succeed in school must also be applied in their vocations.

See also Learning ; Learning development.



Cortiella, Candace, and Sheldon H. Horowitz. The State of Learning Disabilities: Facts, Trends, and Emerging Issues, 3rd ed. New York: National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2014.

Perry, David, et al. Caring for the Physical and Mental Health of People with Learning Disabilities. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2010.


Handler, S. M. “Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, and Vision.” Pediatrics 127 (March 2011): e818–856.

Shifrer, D., et al. “Stima of a Label: Educational Expectations for High School Students Labeled with a Learning Disability.” American Educational Research Journal 50 (March 2013): 656–82.

Utley, Cheryl, et al. “Culturally Responsive Practices for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students with Learning Disabilities.” Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal 9, no. 1 (2011): 5–18.


Learning Disabilities Association of America, 4156 Library Rd., Pittsburgh, PA, 15234-1349, (412) 341-1515, http://ldaamerica.org .

National Center for Learning Disabilities, 99 Park Ave., New York, NY, 10016, (212) 687-7211