LEARNING DISABILITIES

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 
in school. 

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).