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Learning Disabilities

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Students with specific learning disabilities have average to above average intelligence but may have difficulties acquiring and demonstrating knowledge and understanding. This results in a lack of achievement for age and ability level, and a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual abilities.

According to the National Joint Committee for Learning Disabilities, learning disabilities are a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, writing, reasoning or mathematical abilities. The specific causes of learning disabilities are not clearly understood, however, these disorders are presumably related to central nervous system dysfunction. The effects of a learning disability are manifested differently for each individual and can range from mild to severe. Learning disabilities may also be present with other disabilities such as mobility or sensory impairments. Often people with Attention Deficit Disorder also have learning disabilities. Specific types of learning disabilities include:

  • Dysgraphia
    An individual with dysgraphia has a difficult time with the physical task of forming letters and words using a pen and paper and has difficulty producing legible handwriting.

  • Dyscalculia
    A person with Dyscalculia has difficulty understanding and using math concepts and symbols.

  • Dyslexia
    An individual with dyslexia may mix up letters within words and sentences while reading. He may have difficulty spelling words correctly while writing. Letter reversals are common. Some individuals with dyslexia have a difficult time with navigating and routefinding tasks as they are easily confused by directions and spatial information such as left and right.

  • Dyspraxia
    A person with dyspraxia may mix up words and sentences while talking. There is often a discrepancy between language comprehension and language production.

  • Non-verbal Learning Disorder
    Poor motor coordination, visual-spatial organization and/or a lack of social skills may characterize non-verbal learning disorders.

  • Auditory Processing Disorder
    A person with an auditory processing disorder intermittently experiences an inability to process verbal information.

For a student with a learning disability, auditory, visual, or tactile information can become jumbled at any point during transmission, receipt, processing, and/or re-transmission. For example, it may take longer for some students who have learning disabilities to process written information. Lengthy reading or writing assignments and tests may therefore, be difficult to complete in a standard amount of time. This may be due to difficulty discriminating numerals or letters because they appear jumbled or reversed. Inconsistencies between knowledge and test scores are also common.

Some students who have learning disabilities may be able to organize and communicate their thoughts in a one-to-one conversation but find it difficult to articulate the same ideas in a noisy classroom. Other students may experience difficulties with specific processes or subject areas such as calculating mathematics problems, reading, or understanding language. People with learning disabilities may have difficulty spelling and subsequently have difficulty creating or editing text or otherwise communicating in writing. Difficulties with attention, organization, time management, and prioritizing tasks are also common.

Examples of accommodations for students who have learning disabilities include:

  • Notetakers.

  • Audiotaped or videotaped class sessions.

  • Extended exam time and a quiet testing location.

  • Visual, aural, and tactile demonstrations incorporated into instruction.

  • Concise course and lecture outlines.

  • Books on tape.

  • Alternative evaluation methods (e.g., portfolio, oral or video presentations).

  • Providing projects or detailed instructions on audiotapes or print copies.

  • Reinforcing directions verbally.

  • Breaking large amounts of information or instructions into smaller segments.

Computers can be adapted to assist students with learning disabilities. A student with learning disabilities might find these accommodations useful:

  • Computers equipped with speech output, which highlights and reads (via screen reading software and a speech synthesizer) text on the computer screen.

  • Word processing software that includes electronic spelling and grammar checkers, software with highlighting capabilities, and word prediction software.

  • Software to enlarge screen images.

For math and science classes, examples of specific accommodations that are useful for students with learning disabilities include:

  • The use of scratch paper to work out math problems during exams.

  • Talking calculators.

  • Fractional, decimal, and statistical scientific calculators.

  • Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI) software for math.

  • Computer Assisted Design (CAD) software for engineering.

  • Large display screens for calculators and adding machines.

Check Your Understanding
Imagine that a student with Dyslexia who has difficulty reading enrolls in your course that has a large reading load. What accommodations might be effective to help this student complete reading assignments? Choose a response.

  1. A computer with a scanner.

  2. Reducing the number of reading assignments for this student.

  3. Audiotaped class sessions.

  4. Books on tape.

  5. Written materials provided in electronic format.

Accommodation needs of students with learning disabilities vary greatly by individual and by academic activity. Specific academic activities that may pose challenges and suggested accommodations in each area can be found in the following areas resources:

Large lectures
Group/work discussions
Field work
Science labs
Computer labs
Adaptive technology
World Wide Web pages
Writing assignments
International/travel programs
Work-based learning

Further information on accommodating students with learning disabilities can be found in the DO-IT publication Academic Accommodations for Students with Learning Disabilities.