Working Together: Computers and People with Learning Disabilities

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Providing access to technology

A specific learning disability (LD) is in most situations a "hidden disability." Because there are no outward signs of a disability such as a white cane or wheelchair, people with an LD are often neglected when considering assistive computer technology. However, many people with learning disabilities can benefit from mainstream and specialized hardware and software to operate a computer and further their academic and career goals.

Definitions and Terminology

A specific learning disability is unique to the individual and can appear in a variety of ways. It may be difficult to diagnose, to determine impact, and to accommodate.

Generally speaking, someone may be diagnosed with a learning disability if he or she is of average or above-average intelligence and there is a lack of achievement at age and ability level, or a large discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability.

An untrained observer may conclude that a person with a learning disability is "lazy" or "just not trying hard enough." He may have a difficult time understanding the large discrepancy between reading comprehension and proficiency in verbal ability. The observer sees only the input and output, not the processing of the information. Deficiencies in the processing of information make learning and expressing ideas difficult or impossible tasks. Learning disabilities usually fall within four broad categories:

A person with a learning disability may have discrepancies in one or all of these categories. The effects of an LD are manifested differently for different individuals and range from mild to severe. Learning disabilities may also be present along with other disabilities such as mobility or sensory impairments. Often people with Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADD/ADHD) also have learning disabilities. Specific types of learning disabilities include:


Assistive and adaptive technology does not "cure" a specific learning disability. These tools compensate rather than remedy, allowing a person with an LD to demonstrate their intelligence and knowledge. Adaptive technology for the person with an LD is a made-to-fit implementation. Trial and error may be required to find a set of appropriate tools and techniques for a specific individual. Ideally, a person with an LD plays a key role in selecting her technology. She should help to determine what works and what does not. Once basic tools and strategies are selected, they can be "test driven," discarded, adapted, and/or refined.

Following are descriptions of some computing tools that have been used effectively by individuals with specific learning disabilities. This list is not exhaustive and should not limit the person with an LD or the assistive technology practitioner from trying something new. Today's experimental tinkering could lead to tomorrow's commonly used tool.


A twelve-minute video, Working Together: Computers and People with Learning Disabilities, available at www.uw/doit/Video/wt_learn.html, demonstrates key points summarized in this handout. A DVD may be purchased from DO-IT. Permission is granted to reproduce DO-IT videos for educational, non-commercial purposes as long as the source is acknowledged.

Additional Resources

For more information about learning disabilities and possible accommodations, consider the following websites.

Useful information about products that can assist an individual with an LD can be found at the following websites.

Additional publications regarding the use of information technology by people with disabilities can be found at Select Disability-Related Resources on the Internet for a comprehensive list of discussion lists and websites.

To locate technical assistance centers in your state or region, consult or, respectively.

About DO-IT

DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) serves to increase the successful participation of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs such as those in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. Primary funding for DO-IT is provided by the National Science Foundation, the State of Washington, and the U.S. Department of Education. DO-IT is a collaboration of UW Information Technology and the Colleges of Engineering and Education at the University of Washington.

To order free publications or newsletters use the DO-IT Publications Order Form; to order videos and training materials use the Videos, Books and Comprehensive Training Materials Order Form.

For further information, to be placed on the DO-IT mailing list, request materials in an alternate format, or to make comments or suggestions about DO-IT publications or web pages contact:

University of Washington
Box 354842
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Founder and Director: Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

DO-IT Funding and Partners


This publication is based upon work supported by National Science Foundation Grant # 9800324. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Copyright © 2012, 2010, 2008, 2006, 2002, University of Washington. Permission is granted to copy these materials for educational, non-commercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.