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Definitions of Learning Disabilities

The term learning disabilities was coined in 1963 at a meeting held in Chicago.  The group assembled on that date was sifting through potential labels for children who had adequate intelect but had significant difficulties in acquiring and using language to learn. 

Dr. Sam Kirk was the founding director of the Institute for Research on Exceptional Children at the University of Illinois in Urbana, IL.  Kirk said at the conference "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."

Since Kirk's introduction of the term in 1963, additional refinements and elements have been made to the definition of the term learning disabilities over the years.

The 1977 U.S. Office of Education (federal definition in the IDEA statute) records that the term "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, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, speak, read, write, spell, or to 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 disabilities which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps, or mental retardation, or emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. (United States Office of Education. (1977) Definition and criteria for defining students as learning disabled. Federal Register, 42:250, p.65083. Washington, DC:U.S. Government Printing Office.)

The 1999 U.S. Office of Education (Federal Criteria for Determining the Existence of a Specific Learning Disability in the IDEA Regulations) reports that "a) A team may determine that a child has a specific learning disability if: (1) The child does not achieve commensurate with his or her age and ability levels in one or more of the areas listed in paragraph (a) (2) of this section, when provided with learning experiences appropriate for the child's age and ability levels; and (2) The team finds that a child has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability in one or more of the following areas: (i) Oral expression; (ii) Listening comprehension; (iii) Written expression; (iv) Basic reading skill; (v) Reading comprehension; (vi) Mathematics calculation; or (vii) Mathematics reasoning. (b) The team may not identify a child as having a specific learning disability if the severe discrepancy between ability and achievement is primarily the result of (1) A visual, hearing, or motor impairment; (2) Mental retardation; (3) Emotional disturbance; or (4) Environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage." (United States Office of Education, 1999: Assistance to States for the Education of Children with Disabilities and the Early Intervention Program for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities; Final Regulations, 34 C.F.R. pts 300 & 303).

Learning Disabilities

Specific Learning Disabilities is a chronic condition of presumed neurological origin which selectively interferes with the development, integration, and /or demonstration of verbal and/or nonverbal abilities. Specific Learning Disabilities exist as a distinct handicapping condition and varies in its manifestations and in degree of severity. Throughout life, the condition can affect self esteem, education, vocation, socialization, and/or daily living activities (Association for Children with Learning Disabilities, 1986: ACLD Description: Specific Learning Disabilities. ACLD Newsbriefs, Sept./Oct. 166, 15). Note: The Association for Children with Learning Disabilities is now the Learning Disabilities Association of America.)

Learning disabilities is a general term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual, presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction, and may occur across the life span. Problems in self-regulatory behaviors, social perception, and social interaction may exist with learning disabilities but do not by themselves constitute a learning disability. Although learning disabilities may occur concomitantly with other handicapping conditions (for example, sensory impairment, mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance) or with extrinsic influences (such as cultural differences, insufficient or inappropriate instruction), they are not the result of those conditions or influences (National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1988: Collective perspectives on issues affecting learning disabilities; Position papers and statements. Austin, TX:PRO-ED).

Rehabilitation Services Administration reports 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 (Rehabilitation Services Administration, January 24, 1985: Program policy directive. Washington, DC: U.S. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services).


LDA of IL: Position on Learning Disabilities

In this era of education, we recognize the need for an organization dedicated to a single disability category. Persons with learning disabilities are a heterogeneous group, but they share the characteristics of having adequate intellect but still struggling to learn. This differs from persons with intellectual disabilities who do not have adequate intellect. This differs from sensory disabilities because persons with learning disabilities can see and hear with adequate acuity. While each individual in the group of those with learning disabilities has a unique profile of strengths and weaknesses, it is important to know the common thread that makes them all members of this group of individuals.