Learning Disabilities in Adulthood
We live in a world where "early" is thought to be "better," and in many ways, this mindset serves us well, especially as it applies to learning. With increasing success, we are able to focus well-deserved attention on early recognition and response to struggling preschoolers, early intervention services for young children with identified special education needs, early and well-targeted instruction to school-age students who are falling behind in skills development, and early identification of learning disabilities (LD). In an ideal world, students who struggle are able to overcome their challenges and grow to become adults who enjoy personal satisfaction, high self-esteem, self-sufficiency, and productive relationships within their families and in the general community. If only this was the case.
Don't Expect to Outgrow LD
No matter how many times it's been said, it needs to be repeated again and again: learning disabilities do not go away, and LD is a problem with lifelong implications. Addressing features of LD during the early years can indeed help to circumvent and minimize struggles later in life, but we know that problems with listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, math and sometimes social skills can persist, even after years of special education instruction and support.
Adults with Learning Disabilities: A Call to Action
In a 1985 paper titled "Adults with Learning Disabilities: A Call to Action," the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities articulated the following concerns about the issues faced by adults with LD, all of which unfortunately still hold true today:
- Learning disabilities are both persistent and pervasive throughout an individual's life. The manifestations of the learning disability can be expected to change throughout the life span of the individual.
- At present there is a paucity of appropriate diagnostic procedures for assessing and determining the status and needs of adults with learning disabilities. This situation has resulted in the misuse and misinterpretation of tests that have been designed for and standardized on younger people.
- Older adolescents and adults with learning disabilities frequently are denied access to appropriate academic instruction, prevocational preparation, and career counseling necessary for the development of adult abilities and skills.
- Few professionals have been prepared adequately to work with adults who demonstrate learning disabilities.
- Employers frequently do not have the awareness, knowledge of, or sensitivity to the needs of adults with learning disabilities. Corporate as well as public and private agencies have been unaware and therefore have failed to accept their responsibility to develop and implement programs for adults with learning disabilities.
- Adults with learning disabilities may experience personal, social, and emotional difficulties that may affect their adaptation to life tasks. These difficulties may be an integral aspect of the learning disability or may have resulted from past experiences with others who were unable or unwilling to accept, understand, or cope with the persons' disabilities.
- Advocacy efforts on behalf of adults with learning disabilities currently are inadequate.
- Federal, state, and private funding agencies concerned with learning disabilities have not supported program development initiatives for adults with learning disabilities.
While much progress has been made in many of these areas, coordinating services and supports for adults with LD and finding ways to support this population with essential information and effective resources remains an enormous challenge.
High School and Beyond
As mentioned in my Research Roundup on Adolescents and Young Adults with LD — Transition and More — students with LD who graduate from high school have a myriad of post-secondary options available to them including 2-year, 4-year and community colleges, apprenticeships and vocational training programs. The expectations placed on graduating high school students today, especially given the highly technical and increasingly specialized nature of the workforce (and a society that values traditional college completion) have never been higher. The challenges faced by students with learning disabilities in high school and beyond are, in a word, enormous. And current data about post-secondary outcomes is less than encouraging:
39% of students with LD drop out of high school without a general diploma. Only 13% of student with LD (compared to 53% of non-disabled students in the general population) attend a 4-year post-secondary program within 2 years of leaving high school.
These data are more than just reports about high school students. They are reflections of the population of adults who struggle with LD every day of their lives.