We've Come a Long Way ... and We're Not There Yet!
In the early 1960s, the term "learning disabilities" was coined to describe a group of children who, despite normal intelligence, were having significant problems with learning. The difficulties experienced by these children were unexplained and unexpected, and could not be attributed to other conditions such as mental retardation, impairments of hearing or vision, motor disorders and medical conditions. In 1969, the federal government recognized "specific learning disabilities" as a category within special education, and in 1975, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was authorized. More than 30 years later, the field of special education (as well as general education and the public at large) is struggling to understand what learning disabilities are all about!
A Definition in Need of Definition
The term "specific learning disability," as it appears in federal law, is defined as:
...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 to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.
...the term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.
(Federal Code (Section 300.7(c)(10) of 34 CFR Parts 300 and 303))
While there are many problems with this definition (e.g., "basic psychological processes" and "imperfect ability"), it has enabled millions of children to receive services and supports previously denied them in public and private educational settings, and has been a driving force for changes in research, policy and practice for the benefit of individuals with disabilities in school and in society.
What We Know and Where We're Going
Underlying this definition are three basic factors that have been the focus of three decades of research and (no surprise) the source of ongoing controversy:
- The presumption that learning disabilities are the result of central nervous system (neurological) dysfunction;
- The assumption that psychological processing disorders underlie specific learning disabilities;
- The documentation required (e.g., IQ-achievement discrepancy) in order to assign the LD label.
We truly have made progress, especially during the past decade, in addressing each of these factors. Neurobiological and genetic research has pointed us at familial attributes and a "neural signature" for dyslexia (the most prevalent and well-understood subtype of learning disability). Clinical case studies have helped us target assessments to better understand the nature of information processing disorders and problems with executive function that plague individuals with LD across the lifespan. Federal, state and local initiatives are underway to untangle and redirect the instructional and fiscal resources that could make early recognition and targeted responses possible, saving individuals with LD the unnecessarily prolonged (and unconscionable) burden of frustration and failure.