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The History of Learning Disabilities

Learning Disabilities History | Evolution of LD Terms, PerceptionDo you ever wonder what it was like to raise—or teach—a child with a learning disability (LD) 20, 30 or even 50 years ago? Or perhaps you were you a child who struggled in school “back in the day” and only later learned that your difficulty had a name. Below is a snapshot of how our understanding of, and advocacy for, those with LD has evolved in the United States over the past 50 years. Learn about the major developments in neuroscience, special education, public awareness and the power of parents as advocates with the timeline below. As you review it, consider how far the LD field has come—and imagine how much more progress we can make.

The 1960s
The 1970s
The 1980s
The 1990s
2000 and beyond

In the 1960sMajor trends: The medical field recognizes LD, and public schools start teaching struggling students separately from their peers in an effort to provide individual instruction.

  • 1963: Dr. Samuel Kirk defines children with learning disabilities as “… a group of children who have disorders in the development of skills needed for social interaction. In this group I do not include children who have sensory impairments such as blindness of deafness… I also exclude children who have generalized mental retardation.” While he does speak to the heart of the struggle experienced by so many individuals with LD, he does not mention reading, writing or math difficulties.
  • Public schools teach students with learning difficulties outside of the general education classroom. While their intentions are good, this approach deprives students with LD of what would later be called a “Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE)” in the “least restrictive environment (LRE).”
  • Most students with what we now call LD are marginalized in school and society. The small percentage of students who do graduate from high school often lack the academic and social skills to succeed in adulthood.

In the 1970sMajor trends: The Civil Rights movement gains momentum—including the rights and welfare of students with LD and other disabilities.

  • 1975: The first federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (then known as Education for All Handicapped Children Act), is passed. The new law clearly includes “specific learning disabilities” and ensures that the needs of children with LD are met and that they are afforded the protections FAPE and LRE under the law. IDEA defines children with LD as those who have “… 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 imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.” It goes on to explain, “The term does not include a learning problem which is primarily the result of visual, hearing or motor handicaps, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.”
  • The most common method used to identify LD is to measure the discrepancy between a student’s ability and potential (such as through an intelligence, or IQ test) and his or her academic achievement.
  • 1977: The National Center for Learning Disabilities (known then as the Foundation for Children with Learning Disabilities) is founded by Pete and Carrie Rozelle. As parents of a son with LD, they’re driven to help other families by providing leadership, public awareness and grants to support research and innovative practices in LD.

In the 1980sMajor trends: The education community works to determine the best way to meet the needs of students with LD. Federal law follows suit, providing opportunities for parents to take advantage of early intervention services for children who show signs of early risk for LD. Highlights:

  • The need for educators with expertise in research-based instruction grows.
  • Effective reading instruction for all students, especially those with LD, becomes a target of controversy.
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