Learning Disabilities
Learning Disabilities
Ursula Ferrara / Shutterstock.com

Learning disabilities are some of the most common developmental disabilities, affecting up to 20% of Americans. Students diagnosed with a learning disability may have impaired skills in reading, writing, or math (or more than one of these areas). From elementary to high school, students with learning disabilities are automatically eligible to receive support and accommodations in the classroom. Students attending college, however, must seek out accommodations themselves. With effort and planning, students with learning disabilities can thrive in college and beyond!


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What are learning disabilities?

The Learning Disabilities Association of America defines a learning disability as “a disorder in one or more basic psychological processes that may manifest itself as an imperfect ability in certain areas of learning, such as reading, written expression, or mathematics.”

Learning disabilities (sometimes called learning disorders) are common developmental disabilities, affecting up to 15–20% of Americans and 42% of the children receiving special education services in K–12 public schools. They affect how students learn, take in information, and express themselves. Depending on the type of learning disability a student has, he or she could be affected in reading, writing, or math. Furthermore, a student could be affected in more than one of these areas (as is the case with dyslexia, which can affect both reading and writing skills).

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), which is the diagnostic tool used by most mental health professionals, uses the term “specific learning disorder” and breaks it into three distinct categories:

  • Specific learning disorder with impairment in reading: Impairments include word reading accuracy (how often the word being said matches the word that is written), reading rate or fluency (how quickly the material is read), and reading comprehension (how well the material is understood).
  • Specific learning disorder with impairment in written expression: Impairments include spelling accuracy, grammar and punctuation accuracy, and clarity or organization of written expression (how much sense the written material makes and how easy it is to read).
  • Specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics: Impairments include number sense (how easy it is to understand what numbers are, how they relate to each other, etc.), memorization of arithmetic facts (how easy it is to remember multiplication tables, simple addition, etc.), accurate or fluent calculation (how easy it is to get the correct number when performing math tasks), and accurate math reasoning (how easy it is to understand the rules for using different equations, use skills to solve new problems, etc.).

Statistics on learning disabilities can be hard to interpret, because some individuals who have a learning disability don’t realize it and instead attribute their symptoms to lack of intelligence or motivation. Additionally, some individuals have a simultaneously occurring disability, such as autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or intellectual disability. This can make it difficult to determine whether a skill deficit is due to that disability or an underlying learning disability.

What are the most common learning disabilities?

  • Dysgraphia, which affects the writing skills of 4–20% of Americans
  • Dyslexia, which the affects the reading, writing, and spelling skills of 5–15% of Americans
  • Dyscalculia, which affects the math skills of 3–6% of Americans

How and when are learning disabilities diagnosed?

Typically, learning disabilities are not diagnosed until a child enters school. The timing of diagnosis around school age coincides with the fact that learning disabilities primarily affect academic skills like reading, writing, and math—skills often learned after a child first enrolls in primary school. Younger children don’t engage in academic activities or spend time in the classroom, so they’ve never been confronted with the troublesome material and therefore don’t exhibit symptoms of a learning disability, even if they have one.

Once in school, a teacher or parent may realize that a child is struggling in certain areas. Teachers may monitor the student’s progress, often using a method like response to intervention which moves struggling students into different levels, with each level including additional academic assistance. Based on how much assistance is needed, teachers can then coordinate with parents and other professionals to determine whether the student should be referred for further testing. A school psychologist may be able to diagnose a learning disability, but other licensed mental health professionals can as well (namely clinical psychologists). Once diagnosed, a treatment plan can be made to help the child succeed in school. This may include accommodations in the classroom or specialized academic tutoring.

How are learning disabilities treated?

Unlike other developmental disabilities, learning disabilities cannot be treated with medication. The best treatment depends on the specific skills that are impaired, but generally follows one of three common paths:

  • Special teaching techniques including modifying teaching styles to include visual and tactile learning opportunities; providing immediate feedback to strengthen skills; providing notes, outlines, and preprinted study sheets; drawing pictures of word problems; and using music and rhymes to aid memory
  • Classroom modifications including giving a student extra time on tests, allowing a student to take their exams orally, and letting students submit videotaped instead of written reports
  • Use of technology including using computers to type assignments instead of writing them, using spell check software, and using computer programs for math practice

Since classroom modifications are tailored to each individual’s skill deficits, a student’s psychologist, teachers, and parents will work together to develop a list of the accommodations that are most likely to help the student succeed. For example, students who have dysgraphia may receive accommodations to let them take tests and express their knowledge in ways that don’t involve writing, like taking exams orally. Students with dyslexia, however, may benefit from accommodations that mitigate their reading, writing, and spelling deficits, such as extra time on tests and the use of spell check.

Because of the way that learning disabilities affect the brain, students diagnosed with learning disabilities have an increased likelihood of having other co-occurring disorders. Examples of such comorbid conditions include ADHD, language or motor coordination issues, problems with emotional regulation, and tic disorders. These will need to be treated separately from a student’s learning disorder, though some treatment options may overlap.

How do learning disabilities affect students?

Although learning disabilities are not uncommon, the symptoms of a learning disability can be easily missed. This could be because symptoms are attributed to a lack of intelligence or motivation on the student’s part or because a student is actively trying to hide their symptoms so that they go unnoticed.

Common symptoms of learning disabilities include:

  • A discrepancy between a student’s performance and the level at which he or she should be able to perform
  • Laziness or a lack of effort
  • Getting easily sidetracked
  • Avoiding attention (e.g., sitting at the back of classroom, not participating in class)
  • Acting out (e.g., being a class clown, being defiant, or pretending not to care about schoolwork)
  • Routinely missing homework assignments
  • Problems with time management and organization
  • Trouble taking tests (e.g., routinely going over the time limit, always being the last student working on a timed assignment)

Additionally, students with learning disabilities may struggle in social situations due to immature behavior; difficulty interpreting social cues; and a lack of impulse control, judgement, and logical reasoning.

Although these symptoms can cause difficulty in the classroom, once a learning disability is identified and diagnosed, support is available to help students succeed.

How do students with learning disabilities succeed in primary and secondary school?

Students with a diagnosed learning disability are eligible to receive support from elementary through high school via an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan. IEPs are plans for individualized instruction, including measurable goals and progress tracking. 504 plans are intended to ensure that students who need accommodations and classroom support receive them.

In the case of learning disabilities, an IEP or 504 plan may state that the student be given one-on-one support for their skill deficit (e.g., occasionally being taken from their regular classroom to work on specific skills) or adjustments to their classroom environment. The goal is to place a student in the least restrictive environment, meaning that these supports should seek to help the student be successful in a general education classroom as much as possible (instead of in a special education classroom).

Learn more about IEPs and 504 plans here.

Can students with learning disabilities go to college?

Absolutely! Data from the 2008–2009 school year shows that about 31% of the students with disabilities attending college had a specific learning disability. Although you may need to put in extra effort or find resources to help you, college is completely achievable.

Will a college know that I have a learning disability from my application?

A college will not know about your learning disability unless you choose to disclose your diagnosis to them. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act privacy laws prevent doctors and other entities from sharing this information without your consent. But note that if you choose not to disclose your disability, you also cannot receive accommodations or special services. Additionally, even if a college did find out about your diagnosis, it would be illegal for that information to be used against you without violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Although 94% of high school students with a learning disability receive assistance, only 17% of college students with learning disabilities utilize the resources available at their school. If you know that you’ll need help, it might be best to disclose your disability to your school so that you can use the resources available specifically to you.

What resources are available for students with learning disabilities in college?

Whether or not you choose to disclose your learning disability, there are many resources available to you on campus. Email your professors when there is an assignment that stumps you, and visit the office hours of your teaching assistants and professors when you need one-on-one help. Librarians are often underused, but can help you find research materials or request documents or books from other libraries. You can also reach out to your advisor if you find that you’re struggling so much that you’re considering dropping a class or want help determining what levels of classes to sign up for each semester. Additionally, writing centers, math centers, and peer tutors are often available on college campuses.

Note that if you want accommodations similar to those you received in high school, you will have to disclose your disability to your school. Contact your school’s disability office to learn about what paperwork is required (a doctor’s note, a list of necessary accommodations, medical records) to get your disability on the record. Once the school knows you have a disability, your professors and advisors will be informed. This won’t give you a leg up on your peers in the classroom (you are required to perform at the same level), but it does give you the ability to get any accommodations that you might need to perform similarly to your peers. These accommodations may include a recording device if you struggle to take notes or extra time on exams if you struggle to read material, among others.

If you feel that you’ll need more intensive support, some schools offer programs tailored to students with learning disabilities. Every program is different, but you’ll find that supports include specialized tutoring, regularly scheduled meetings with advisors, and priority registration. Although it may be hard to predict exactly what supports will benefit you the most in college, think about what accommodations you had in high school. What helped you succeed? Look at colleges that have programs with similar supports in place.

What else can I do to be successful in college despite my learning disability?

  • Know your strengths and weaknesses and plan for them.
  • Ask your professors ahead of time if you can record or videotape lectures.
  • Study material in a way that you’ve done successfully before.
  • Use any assistance that is available to you.
  • Seek out extra help and advice when you need it. The staff of your school’s disability office, your professors, and your advisors are there to help!

Page last updated: 03/2018