Learning disabilities is a term that describes both universal
problems in learning and a specific category of students eligible
for special educational services under U. S. law. The term is used
generically in psychopathology to refer to difficulties in
learning, such as those caused by MENTAL RETARDATION, as opposed
to difficulties in relating to others (which might be caused by
emotional or behavioral disorders). Learning disabilities is used
more particularly in education to refer to a group of children and
youth who, despite having the apparent benefits of normal
intelligence, adequate instruction, and general emotional or
behavioral stability, experience unusual difficulty in succeeding
Among categories of SPECIAL EDUCATION, learning disabilities
constitute the most recently defined. Although some states
recognized learning disabilities as a category requiring special
educational services and provided financial support for it in the
early 1960s, it was not broadly accepted until the mid-1970s when
the federal government included learning disabilities in the
landmark legislation commonly referred to as PL 94-142 of the
Education of the Handicapped Act (1975). Since that time, the
category has grown rapidly and accounts for nearly 5% of the
school-age population and over 50% of the students receiving
special education services.
Although learning disabilities are defined by academic
deficits, extensive research has been conducted to identify the
sources of problems in apprehending school skills and knowledge.
Students with learning disabilities manifest a wide variety of
characteristics that are associated with underachievement.
However, because individuals with learning disabilities do not
form a homogeneous group, few characteristics are common to all
individuals who have these disabilities. Among the most common
characteristics are deficits in the ability to understand specific
aspects of language such as segmenting words into component sounds
or deriving meaning from complex sentences, to remember
information, and to direct attention to specific aspects of
displays or situations. Although these difficulties are often
presumed to be the result of subtle neurological problems, the
causes have not been firmly established.
Treatment of learning disabilities has produced controversy.
Because the problems experienced by these individuals are diverse
and baffling, the field has attracted some treatments of
questionable value, and the quack-like character of certain
treatments has encouraged some people to dismiss the field.
However, extensive research has revealed several consistencies in
successful interventions. In the schools, these consistencies
include instruction that explicitly teaches students how to
perform tasks; requires them to practice applying learned skills
to disparate rather than a limited range of examples; relates
these skills to each other and to their uses in other areas; and
encourages students to deploy these skills in a purposeful manner
when approaching tasks, to monitor whether their actions are
achieving desired ends, and to attribute their successes to
consistent application of their plans. In addition to
instructional treatments, some individuals with learning
disabilities also benefit from other therapies including the use
of certain medications and counseling services.
Bibliography: Hallahan, D. P., Kauffman, J. M., and Lloyd, J. W.,
Introduction to Learning Disabilities, 2d ed. (1985); Lovitt,
Thomas, Introduction to Learning Disabilities (1989); Mastropieri,
Margo A., and Scruggs, Thomas E., Effective Instruction for
Special Education (1987); Scruggs, T., and Wong, B. Y. L.,
Intervention Research in Learning Disabilities (1990); Singh, N.
N., and Beale, I. L., Learning Disabilities: Nature, Theory, and
Treatment (1991); Swanson, H. L., Handbook on the Assessment of
Learning Disabilities: Theory, Research, and Practice (1991).