As the phrase suggests, a learning disability refers to a condition a given person may have that prevents him from effectively engaging in the process of learning. This sample essay provided by Ultius will provide an overview and discussion of learning disabilities.
The essay will have four main parts.
- The first part will consist of a description of the basic concept of learning disability.
- The second part will discuss the prevalence of learning disabilities within the contemporary United States.
- The third part will then shift into a theoretical consideration regarding the etiology of learning disabilities.
- Finally, the fourth part will reflect on what an educator can perhaps do in order to address the needs of a student who has been diagnosed with a learning disability.
Concept of learning disabilities
The concept of learning disability can be found in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual for mental illnesses (DSM). The definition and classification of the concept, though, have undergone revisions over time. As Malow has written:
“In the fourth edition of the DSM, the diagnostic category of Learning Disorders was placed under the section titled ‘Usually First Diagnosed in Childhood, Infancy, or Adolescence.’ The DSM V places the renamed diagnostic category of Specific Learning Disorder under the section titled ‘Neurodevelopmental Disorders’ capturing the lifelong implications of this brain disorder” (para. 1).
The concept of learning difficulty, then, now refers to a problem that has occurred in the natural development of the child’s brain, such that the child is now incapable (or only capable in an inhibited way) of learning the knowledge and skills that other children of his age are typically expected to master without any significant issues.
There are several different types of learning disabilities, depending on what exact kind of skill is specifically giving a particular child trouble.
Different learning disabilities
The Learning Disabilities Association of America has discussed the learning disabilities of different disorders including:
- auditory processing disorder, which impedes the child’s ability to process information that is communicated through speech
- dyscalculia, which impedes the child’s ability to work effectively with numbers
- dyslexia, which impedes a child’s ability to process written language; and non-verbal learning, which impedes a child’s motor skills and ability to process non-verbal social cues.
There are thus a wide range of specific learning disorders. What all of them have in common, though, is that they prevent the child from processing information and holistically learning in a way that is deemed typical for a child of that age.
A key conceptual point that should perhaps be made is that a learning disability is fundamentally conceptualized as a neurological problem affecting the brain. That is, a child with a learning disability has a brain that has developed in such a way that it is not capable (or only capable in a limited way) of processing certain kinds of information. This implies that in order to address a child’s learning disability, it would be necessary to engage in practices that could potentially help restructure the child’s neurological processes and realize that different brains develop differently.
Sometimes, though, it may be the case that it is not possible to really change the child’s learning disability, and that the educator must thus accept it as a natural part of the given child and plan her lessons and engagements accordingly. This theme will be discussed further closer to the end of the present essay, after the sections on the prevalence of learning disabilities and theoretical considerations regarding the very nature of learning disabilities.
Prevalence of learning disabilities
Interestingly, it would seem that the prevalence of learning disabilities has actually decreased over the past decade or so. As Cortiella and Horowtiz have written in an important report on the subject of learning disabilities:
“Once the fastest growing category of special education—increasing more than 300 percent between 1976 and 2000—the LD category has now declined by almost 2 percent annually since 2002” (12).
By and large, the researchers have attributed this to increased emphasis on a diverse range of early education strategies, including early diagnoses of children who may potentially have problems in the future. This early diagnosis allows efforts to be taken before the problems become too severe; and this has a kind of chain-reaction effect, to the point that the child may have no learning disability at all over the course of the years, depiste being subjected to treatment and special education.
This naturally follows from the conceptualization of learning disabilities as neurodevelopmental disorder, as has been presented in the revised fifth edition of the DSM (Malow). If a problem is neurodevelopmental, then this implies that over the course of time, if the problem remains untreated, then it will become more severe not in a linear but rather an exponential fashion.
For example, if a child exhibits a problem with listening comprehension at a very young age, then this could perhaps be addressed easily enough at an early age; however, if the child does not receive proper interventions, then this problem will cause the child to lack the foundations for proceeding to the next step of his development; and so on.
The upshot is that the effect of an untreated learning disability would become cumulative, which could ultimately lead to the disconcerting scenario of (for example) a high school student who is virtually incapable of processing the information delivered to him in a lecture.
It is thus logical that addressing a learning disability early on, before it actually becomes a disability, could lead to significant drops in learning disability rates.
Theoretical considerations of learning disabilities
At this point, it is perhaps worth turning closer attention to what a learning disability actually is. It has been indicated above that a learning disability has been defined by the DSM V as a neurodevelopmental disorder: that is, it is fundamentally conceptualized as a problem affecting the central nervous system (i.e. the brain). However, it has also become clear that a learning disability is primarily diagnosed on the basis of behavioral indicators: for example, the child is seen as unable to fulfill a certain kind of task.
Moreover, the disability is evaluated against a norm that is not so much neurological per se as social or cultural, based as it is on what is commonly expected of a certain cohort within a given place and time. This introduces some complications into the concept of learning disability.
In particular, there is a kind of logical gap that exists between witnessing a “strange” or atypical behavior in a person on the one hand, and attributing this to an objective problem in the brain on the other (Szasz). This would be similar to saying that a person who has suffered from a heartbreak is depressed because of the fact that he is suffering from an imbalance of chemicals in his brain.
The heartbreak may have well caused a change in brain chemistry as well; but in truth, anyone with any understanding of human nature at all would be able to determine that the reason the person is depressed is because he has had his heart broken, and not because he has an inherent neurological problem within his brain. Similarly, the diagnosis of learning disability could potentially run the risk, at least some of the time, of neglecting environmental or sociocultural factors that impede the learning process, instead naively attributing the issue to the child’s own neurological system.
A good example of this issue may consist of the increasing prevalence of the learning disability of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), even as other learning disabilities are apparently on the decline. The diagnosis of ADHD, like the diagnosis of other learning disabilities, assumes that the cause of the problem is intrinsic to the student’s neurological system. As Silver has pointed out, however:
“Your child may be overactive, inattentive, and/or impulsive. But these behaviors could be caused by anxiety, depression, academic frustration, family problems” (paragraph 6).
In particular, a great deal of pedagogical literature has attested to the fact that the typical classroom is not structured in a way that is naturally in harmony with the way in which a normal child ordinarily tend to learn (Dewey). So, theoretically considered, it becomes possible that a child may fail to learn within a relatively bad classroom environment—and then get diagnosed with a learning disability as a result of this failure to learn.
Implications for the Educator
In the context of these considerations, one key implication for the educator working with students with learning disabilities is to work with the students on an individualized basis, without taking the diagnosis itself in too “serious” of a way. In other words, the educator should work with her students in such a way that she assumes that the student is an individual in need of assistance, and not merely a representative of a certain type of learning disability.
This is important because otherwise, the educator’s own attitude could well short-circuit the learning process and thereby exacerbate whatever problems the given student may or may not have. Essentially, the point here is that there are two variables within the learning situation: the child, and his environment (Dewey). It is possible that sometimes, the child may not so much be incapable of learning in general, as just incapable of learning within a certain kind of environment. The educator should be sensitive to this distinction and make accommodations accordingly.
Moreover, the educator should, paradoxically, be careful to not give the student with a learning disability an excess of special assistance or accommodation. As Gilmour, the parent of a child with a learning disability, has written:
“I learned, much later than I would have liked, that students buoyed by too much help become less motivated to initiate action on their own. I did not understand until recently how the aide’s years of orbiting my son fostered a learned helplessness that increased his dependency on adult supervision, and decreased his self-esteem” (paragraph 5).
The student with a learning disability clearly by definition needs some kind of specialized accommodation from the educator. However, it is the task of the educator to ensure that she only provides the student with the level of accommodation actually required by his actual disability, as opposed to providing him with a kind of universalized and indiscriminate support. The latter could potentially harm the student’s sense of autonomy, and thereby compound one disability with another.
After describing the concept itself, the essay proceeded to discuss the prevalence of learning disabilities, consider relevant theoretical points regarding their nature, and finally reflected on their implications for the educator. A key point that has emerged here is that although there is surely a neurodevelopmental aspect to learning disabilities, the educators should also not fail to acknowledge the way in which learning disabilities emerge and are diagnosed socioculturally, at the interface between the child and his environment. This awareness can help improve the educator’s pedagogical practices.
Cortiella, Candace, and Sheldon H. Horowitz. The State of Learning Disabilities. National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2014. Web. 18 Oct. 2015. https://www.ncld.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/2014-State-of-LD.pdf>.
Dewey, John. The Child and the Curriculum. Project Gutenberg, 1902. Web. 18 Oct. 2015. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/29259>.
Glimour, Margaret. “For a Child with a Learning Disability, There’s Such a Thing As Too Much Help.” New York Times. 25 Jun. 2015. http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/06/25/for-a-child-with-a-learning-disability-theres-such-a-thing-as-too-much-help/?_r=0>.
Learning Disabilities Association of America. “Types of Learning Disabilities.” Author, 2015. Web. 18 Oct. 2015. https://www.ldworldwide.org/educators>.
Malow, Micheline S. “Learning Disabilities and the DSM V.” Strategies for Successful Learning 7.1 (2013). Web. 18 Oct. 2015. http://www.ldworldwide.org/educators/1106-warm-demander-pedagogy-reaching-students-through-care-and-insistence>.
Silver, Larry. “Beyond the ADHD Diagnosis: Understanding Common Learning Disabilities.” Additude. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2015. https://www.additudemag.com/half-of-all-kids-with-adhd-have-a-learning-disability-or-related-condition/>.
Szasz, Thomas S. “The Myth of Mental Illness.” The American Psychologist 15.2 (1960): 113- 118. Web. 18 Oct. 2015. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1961-01456-001>.