What is learning disability? Explained

In the previous post we learned about cerebral palsy This article introduces the basic understanding regarding persons with learning disabilities in India. The post also discusses the definition, types, aetiology, size, and management of learning difficulties.

At the end of this blog, the reader will:
  • Acquire sufficient knowledge on the meaning, definition, and forms of learning difficulties
  • Learn about the aetiology of learning impairments and
  • Learn about the severity, scope, and management of learning difficulties.


  1. Introduction
  2. Meaning and Definition of Learning Disabilities
  4. Learning disabilities are life long
  5. Causes of Learning Disability:
  6. Related Disorders
  7. Incidence and magnitude of the problem 
  8. Role of Parents and Teachers in Assisting Children
  9. Physical activity can help your child with ADD / ADHD
  10. The diagnosis and testing process for learning disabilities
  11. Social work with people with learning disabilities


A learning disability, often known as a specific developmental problem, is a condition that impairs or interferes with learning abilities. Learning disabilities are life disabilities that affect both children and adults. The impairment may be so mild that it goes unnoticed for the rest of one's life. These impairments cause a chasm between true potential and day-to-day productivity and performance. The same learning deficits that impede reading, writing, and arithmetic also impede cricket, football, dressing, keeping the room tidy, and every other area of life. Individuals who are learning impaired do not benefit from a regular school programme, are not socially disadvantaged, intellectually limited, or pedagogically deprived, and do not show indications of hard sign neurophysiological dysfunction. A learning challenged child is one who has trouble communicating, either expressively or receptively, and who cannot read, write, or do mathematics within the criterion range specified by school norms.

Individuals with learning disabilities are socially excluded from human rights, inclusion, communication, and fundamental services such as healthcare, education, and employment in general. Given the gravity of the situation, it is critical that people with learning disabilities receive increased socioeconomic and political attention. Social workers who work to effect change in people are obligated to ensure that people with learning disabilities are aware of the services that are available to them in order for them to be included. As a result, social work in the topic of disability has gained prominence in Indian social work education.

Meaning and Definition of Learning Disabilities:

Acquiring new knowledge, abilities, or attitudes is learning. During their early years of development, children learn to hear spoken language before learning to talk. According to their age and intellectual capacity, children learn to read, write, and perform arithmetic during the school year. According to their age and intellectual capacity, some youngsters may not be able to acquire one or more of these talents. Despite having an intelligence of 90 or higher and normal visual or physical ability, it appears that some youngsters are unable to acquire one or more age-appropriate skills. These youngsters suffer from a Specific Learning Disability (SLD). Nearly 12 percent of students struggle with a Specific Learning Disability."

No other disabling ailment affects as many individuals and is so little known and understood as SLD (Washington Summit, 1994). Specific Learning deficits are processing difficulties with a neurological basis. These processing issues can impede the acquisition of fundamental abilities such as reading, writing, and mathematics, as well as motor coordination issues. They can also hinder higher-level abilities such as organisation, time management, abstract reasoning, long or short-term memory, and focus. It is crucial to recognise that learning difficulties can impact a person's relationships with family, friends, and coworkers in addition to their academic performance.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2002) defines a specific learning disability as a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written, which may manifest in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or perform mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. However, learning disabilities do not encompass learning difficulties that are primarily caused by visual, auditory, or motor impairments, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

Learning disabilities should not be confused with learning difficulties caused by visual, auditory, or motor impairments, mental retardation, emotional instability, environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantages. People with learning impairments are typically of average or above-average intelligence. There appears to be a significant gap between an individual's potential and actual accomplishments. This is why learning disorders are referred to as "hidden disabilities": the individual appears "normal" and very bright and brilliant, but is unable to display the expected level of skill for a person of the same age. "Learning Problems" is a "umbrella" phrase for a variety of distinct learning disabilities (Learning Disabilities online, 2008)

Types of learning disability


It is a specific learning disability that impacts reading and language processing skills. There are numerous definitions and descriptions of dyslexia, which may be applicable in certain circumstances or for particular purposes.

Sir Jim Rose's 2009 report entitled "Identifying and Teaching Children and Young People with Dyslexia and Literacy Difficulties" described dyslexia as follows: Dyslexia is a learning disability that primarily impairs the ability to read and spell words accurately and fluently. Dyslexia is characterised by problems with phonological awareness, verbal memory, and verbal processing speed. Dyslexia affects individuals of all intellectual abilities. It is better viewed as a continuum rather than a discrete category, and there are no clear dividing lines. Co-occurring impairments in language, motor coordination, mental calculation, concentration, and personal organisation may be observed, although they are not diagnostic of dyslexia.

Examining how an individual responds or has responded to evidence-based intervention is a good indicator of the degree and duration of dyslexia-related impairments. 2009 (Robert C Carson)

Signs and Symptoms of Dyslexia are:

  • Reads slowly and painfully 
  • Experiences decoding errors, especially with the order of letters 
  • Shows wide disparity between listening comprehension and reading comprehension of some text 
  • Has trouble with spelling 
  • May have difficulty with handwriting 
  • Exhibits difficulty recalling known words 
  • Has difficulty with written language 
  • May experience difficulty with math computations 
  • Decoding real words is better than nonsense words 
  • Substitutes one small sight word for another: a, I, he, the, there, was 

Strategies for Intervention: 

  • Provide a quiet area for activities like reading, answering comprehension questions 
  • Use books on tape 
  • Use books with large print and big spaces between lines
  • Provide a copy of lecture notes 
  • Don’t count spelling on history, science or other similar tests
  • Allow alternative forms for book reports 
  • Allow the use of a laptop or other computer for in-class essays 
  • Use multi-sensory teaching methods 
  • Teach students to use logic rather than rote memory 
  • Present material in small units


It is a specific learning issue that impacts the individual's handwriting and fine motor skills. Despite being given sufficient time and effort, dysgraphia is the inability to write properly. It is yet unknown what causes this disorder, however it may be a result of a linguistic impairment or harm to the motor system. The primary symptom of dysgraphia is virtually illegible handwriting. The lettering will appear inaccurate or deformed, with letters and gaps of varying sizes.

Symptoms and Indicators of Dysgraphia:

  • May contain unreadable printing and script (despite appropriate time and attention given the task) 
  • Displays irregularities, such as a mixture of print and cursive, upper and lower case, or characters with odd sizes, forms, or slants 
  • Contains unfinished or omitted words or letters 
  • Inconsistent interword and interletter spacing Odd wrist, body, or paper position 
  • Difficulty picturing letter production in advance 
  • Copying or writing is sluggish or laborious. Poor spatial planning on paper. 
  • Clunched or odd grip/may complain of hurting hand. 
  • Has considerable difficulties simultaneously thinking and writing (taking notes, creative writing.)

Strategies for Intervention:

  • Suggest use of word processor 
  • Avoid chastising student for sloppy, careless work 
  • Use oral exams 
  • Allow use of tape recorder for lectures 
  • Allow the use of a note taker 
  • Provide notes or outlines to reduce the amount of writing required
  • Reduce copying aspects of work (pre-printed math problems)
  • Allow use of wide rule paper and graph paper 
  • Suggest use of pencil grips and or specially designed writing aids 
  • Provide alternatives to written assignments (video-taped reports, audio-taped reports) 


An individual's ability to grasp numerical concepts and memorise numerical data is hampered by this learning deficit. Mathematical incapacity is known as dyscalculia. Both dyslexia and dyscalculia have been linked to difficulties with visual perception. One who has difficulty with mathematical or arithmetic tasks is said to suffer from dyscalculia. Having this kind of problem with numbers is quite challenging. Although dyscalculia is not as socially stigmatised as reading and writing difficulties, early diagnosis is still crucial to helping a kid with the disorder avoid having their self-esteem negatively affected. Like there is no universal collection of symptoms shared by all dyslexics, there is also no universal set of causes for dyscalculia. The prefix "dys" originates from the Greek for "problem." The word "calculia" refers to mathematical calculations. To put it another way, having dyscalculia indicates that you have problems with numbers and/or calculations. In 2007 (Eric J. Mash)

Signs and Symptoms of Dyscalculia:

  • Shows difficulty understanding concepts of place value, and quantity, number lines, positive and negative value, carrying and borrowing 
  • Has difficulty understanding and doing word problems 
  • Has difficulty sequencing information or events 
  • Exhibits difficulty using steps involved in math operations 
  • Shows difficulty understanding fractions 
  • Is challenged making change and handling money 
  • Displays difficulty recognizing patterns when adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing 
  • Has difficulty putting language to math processes 
  • Has difficulty understanding concepts related to time such as days, weeks, months, seasons, quarters, etc.
  • Exhibits difficulty organizing problems on the page, keeping numbers lined up, following through on long division problems

Strategies for Intervention:

  • Allow use of fingers and scratch paper 
  • Use diagrams and draw math concepts
  • Provide peer assistance 
  • Suggest use of graph paper 
  • Suggest use of colored pencils to differentiate problems 
  • Work with manipulative 
  • Draw pictures of word problems 
  • Use mnemonic devices to learn steps of a math concept 
  • Use rhythm and music to teach math facts and to set steps to a beat 
  • Schedule computer time for the student for drill and practice 


An explicit Problems with movement and coordination, whether they involve fine motor abilities or broad motor skills, are referred to as motor difficulties. Developmental dyspraxia and developmental coordination disorder are additional names for dyspraxia (DCD). Although the exact aetiology of dyspraxia is unknown, it is believed to be brought on by an immature neuronal development in the brain. About 10% of people have dyspraxia, some of whom have it severely. Males make up the vast majority. Similar to dyslexia and dyscalculia, there are wide variations in how much an individual is impacted. Some people may experience a milder impact than others. Sometimes children miss developmental milestones and may have speech issues; unsurprisingly, this causes problems in school. The medical journal defines dyspraxia as a "serious impairment in the development of motor or movement co-ordination that can't be explained solely in terms of mental retardation or any other specific inherited or acquired neurological disorder." This problem is frequently accompanied by difficulties with vision and movement, i.e. problems with catching a bell. Although there is currently no known cure for dyspraxia, regular physiotherapy and/or occupational therapy sessions may help patients with their motor and coordination skills. The diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM-IV) of the American Psychiatric Association utilises the name Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) and provides five diagnostic criteria, despite the fact that the term dyspraxia is most frequently used in educational settings.
  • There is a marked impairment in the development of motor coordination. 
  • The impairment significantly interferes with academic achievement or activities of daily living. 
  • The coordination difficulties are not due to a general medical condition, e.g. cerebral palsy, hemiplegia or muscular dystrophy. 
  • It is not a pervasive developmental disorder. 
  • If developmental delay is evident, the motor difficulties are in excess of those usually associated with it. (Mercer, 1987)

Strategies for Intervention:

  • Pre-set students for touch with verbal prompts, “I’m going to touch your right hand.” 
  • Avoid touching from behind or getting too close and make sure peers are aware of this 
  • Provide a quiet place, without auditory or visual distractions, for testing, silent reading or work that requires great concentration 
  • Warn the student when bells will ring or if a fire drill is scheduled 
  • Whisper when working one to one with the child 
  • Allow parents to provide earplugs or sterile waxes for noisy events such as assemblies 
  • Make sure the parent knows about what is observed about the student in the classroom 
  • Refer student for occupational therapy or sensory integration training 
  • Be cognizant of light and light sources that may be irritating to child 
  • Use manipulatives, but make sure they are in students field of vision and don’t force student to touch them

Learning disabilities are life long

A learning disability is a lifetime issue that cannot be cured or rectified. People with learning disabilities, with the right assistance and intervention, can succeed in school, at work, in relationships, and in the community. Children, adolescents, young adults, and adults are all affected by learning difficulties. However, "the manner in which they (learning impairments) manifest themselves may vary over an individual's lifetime, depending on the interaction between environmental demands and the individual's strengths and needs." Decisions about instructional interventions must take into account what the individual requires to function in a future society. Students at all levels of education must understand how to communicate their learning difficulties and what modifications assist learning and task completion. Persons with learning disabilities are less likely to participate in successful postsecondary studies if they lack self-awareness and the skills to adequately self-advocate. 

Causes of Learning Disability:

The effects of hazardous chemicals such as drugs, alcohol, and some minerals, as well as early deprivation, poor nutrition, and oxygen deprivation, all have an impact on the brain. These can have an impact during the prenatal, perinatal, and postnatal phases.

Prenatal, Natal Factors: 

According to research, a group of children with reading difficulties were the result of pregnancies with complications such as toxaemia, pre-maturity haemorrhage, and low birth weight. Rh-incomatibility, maternal endocrine problem, maternal age, reproductive readiness, radiation, narcotics, alcohol, tobacco, accidents, and anoxia have all been linked to learning disabilities (LD).

Postnatal Factors:

Children who have undergone post-birth trauma, brain injury, lead poisoning, causing neurological damage, seizures, chronic ear infections, intracranial infections such as encephalitis or meningitis, and those who inhale or consume neurotoxins may also be factors.

Genetic Factors:

These appear to be significant familiar elements. It is not unusual for a parent to report that their child or a close family member has learning difficulties. In a high majority of cases, genetic factors appear to be at work.

Biochemical Factors: 

Certain metabolic factors such as hypoglycemia, hypothyroidism are reported to be found in some children with learning disabilities.

Psychological Factors: 

Children having learning disabilities tend to develop psychological problems as secondary symptoms as they are aware of the disabilities. 

Experiential Deprivation: 

Children coming from economically and culturally backward homes may exhibit some characteristics of learning disabilities. (A, 1992) 

Related disorders


A biological, brain-based ailment called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (commonly known as ADD or ADHD) is characterised by poor attention, distractibility, and/or hyperactive and impulsive behaviours. It is one of the most prevalent mental illnesses that youngsters experience. It's possible for symptoms to last well into adulthood. Untreated ADHD can result in subpar academic achievement, strained social interactions, and a general sense of low self-worth. A general term called attention deficit disorder (ADD) is frequently used to describe people who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder but lack the impulsive and hyperactive behaviours. Both those who exhibit hyperactivity and impulsivity symptoms as well as those who do not frequently use the words ADD and ADHD interchangeably. Although the precise cause of ADHD is unknown, genetic and biological factors are likely to play a role in the disorder. Families are prone to having people with ADHD. Currently, a lot of study is being done to determine which genes, or which genetic variants, may make someone more prone to developing ADHD. A connection between ADHD and physical variations in some brain regions has also been proposed.

Auditory Processing Disorder (APD):

This disorder, also known as Central Auditory Processing Disorder, has a negative impact on how the brain processes or interprets sound that passes through the ear unhindered.

Language Processing Disorder:

A particular form of auditory processing disorder (APD) in which understanding is hampered by problems in associating meaning with sound groups that make up words, phrases, and comprehension.

Incidence and magnitude of the problem 

Diagnosing SLD is highly challenging due to the range of symptoms and their severity, especially when they are complicated by social, cultural, and economic constraints. The limited education, knowledge, and language exposure of many of these children in India makes diagnosis much more difficult. The Washington Summit on Learning Disabilities, held in 1994, was a significant turning point in the history of LD. The prevalence of LD was stated at the summit to be 15% of the population. One year after graduation, 62% of learning challenged students were jobless. (Wagner, 1991, National Longitudinal Transition Study) 60 percent of persons with significant reading issues also have learning difficulties that are either undiagnosed or untreated. According to the National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Centre,

LD is currently seen as the privilege of a select few in India's major cities. Unfortunately, while English is a foreign language and the children struggle academically, these complicating variables also play a significant role in disguising the processing issues and making LD a difficult condition to diagnose. Learning disorders are most frequently recognised during the school years since issues with reading, writing, and math are noticeable during that time. Some people, however, are not evaluated until they are in post-secondary education or are adults working. Some people with learning disabilities may never be evaluated, and they may live their lives without ever understanding why they struggle in school, at work, or in their interactions with family and friends.

Role of Parents and Teachers in Assisting Children

The effectiveness of an optimistic outlook

  • Keep things in perspective. Remember that your child’s behavior is related to a disorder. Most of the time it is not intentional 
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff and be willing to make some compromises. 
  • Believe in your child. Think about or make a written list of everything that is positive, valuable, and unique about your child.

Take care of oneself

  • Seek support 
  • take breaks

Establish structure of stick to it

  • Follow a routine’ 
  • Use clocks and timers 
  • Simplify your child’s schedule
  • Create a quiet place 
  • Do your best to be neat and organized 
  • Avoid problems by keeping kids with attention deficit disorder busy 
  • Don’t forget praise and positive reinforcement 
  • Set clear expectations and rules.

Better sleep can help your child with ADD/ ADHD

  • Decrease television time and increase your child’s activities and exercise levels during the day. 
  • Eliminate caffeine from your child’s diet. 
  • Eating small meals more often may help your child’s ADD/ADHD

 Helping a child with attention deficit disorder improve social skills

  • Speak gently but honestly with your child about his or her challenges and how to make changes. 
  • Role-play various social scenarios with your child. Trade roles often and try to make it fun 
  • Be careful to select playmates for your child with similar language and physical skills. 
  • Invite only one or two friends at a time a first. Watch them closely while they play 
  • Have a zero tolerance policy for hitting, pushing and yelling in your house or yard 
  • Make time and space for your child to play, and reward good play behaviours often. (Gina Kemp, 2015)

The diagnosis and testing process for learning disabilities

A learning deficiency must first be diagnosed. It incorporates testing, history gathering, and expert observation. Finding a reliable recommendation is crucial. The following types of specialists may be able to test for and identify learning disabilities:
  • Clinical psychologists 
  • School psychologists 
  • Child psychiatrists 
  • Educational psychologists 
  • Developmental psychologists 
  • Neuropsychologist 
  • Psychometrists 
  • Occupational therapist (tests sensory disorders that can lead to learning problems)
  • Speech and language therapist
Sometimes several professionals coordinate services as a team to obtain an accurate diagnosis. They may ask for input from your child's teachers. Recommendations can then be made for special education services or speech-language therapy within the school system. (Gina Kemp, 2015).

Social work with people with learning disabilities 

Most people with learning difficulties can benefit from social work knowledge and skills in a variety of contexts. Currently, social workers' primary responsibility is acting as the team's care manager for individuals with learning difficulties. This position include determining the need for community support services, commissioning services based on eligibility, accessibility, and affordability standards, as well as providing more direct support and counselling to clients and families of specific persons. Work with people with learning difficulties entails multi-disciplinary, collaboration based approaches. But in addition to these services, social workers also engage in a wide range of additional activities, whether they are primarily involved in evaluation, counselling, advocacy, or direct practise provisioning.

Major services a Social Worker can offer for learning disabled: 

  • Counseling 
  • Assessment 
  • Psychotherapy 
  • Advocacy 
  • Therapist 
  • Case Manager
  • Trainings for Staffs working along with LD 
  • Community Inclusion 
  • Vocational Guidance (Evans, 2013)


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