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Learning Disabilities

Learning Disabilities

Learning Disabilities
Learning Disabilities

Imagine having important needs and ideas to communicate but being unable to express them. Imagine feeling bombarded by sights and sounds, but being unable to focus or sit still. Imagine trying to read or add, but struggling to make sense of the letters or numbers.

These difficulties make up the common daily experiences of millions of women with learning disabilities. Speech or language impairments alone cause disability in an estimated 6 to 8 million Americans. Despite the challenges imposed by these impairments, the majority of people with learning disabilities live with happy, productive lives.

The specific criteria for defining learning disabilities may vary according to the source, whether the educational system, the federal government, health care provider and consumer groups, or states. According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, however, there are three broad categories of learning disabilities:

  • Developmental speech and language disorders
  • Academic skills disorders (reading. writing, and arithmetic disorders)
  • Other, which includes coordination, spelling, and memory disorders

Learning disabilities affect many different areas of academic performance:

  • Spoken language: Delays, disorders, and discrepancies in listening and speaking
  • Written language: Difficulties with reading, writing and spelling
  • Arithmetic: Difficulty in organizing and integrating thoughts
  • Organization skills: Difficulty in organizing all facets of learning

The cause of learning disabilities is still unknown. However, possible contributing factors may include:

  • hereditary
  • complications in pregnancy or at birth
  • chemical imbalance
  • toxins
  • a lag in nervous system development

A Learning Disability is NOT:

  • A form of mental retardation or an emotional disorder
  • Primarily due to other handicapping conditions, environmental, or cultural influences. It may occur concomitantly with other handicapping conditions but is not the result of these conditions.
Characteristics of College Students with Learning Disabilities

Many college students with learning disabilities are intelligent, talented, and capable. Typically, they have developed a variety of strategies for compensating for their learning disabilities. However, the degree of severity of the disability varies from individual to individual.

Individuals affected by learning disabilities may experience one or many of the difficulties associated with specific oral and written skills.

Reading Skills

  • Slow reading rate and/or difficulty in modifying reading rate in accordance with material's level of difficulty
  • Uneven comprehension and retention of material read
  • Difficulty reading for long periods of time

Written Language Skills

  • Difficulty planning a topic and organizing thoughts on paper
  • Difficulty with sentence structure (e.g. incomplete sentences, run-ons, poor use of grammar, missing inflectional endings)
  • Frequent spelling errors (e.g. omissions, substitutions, transpositions), especially in specialized and foreign vocabulary
  • Difficulty effectively proofreading written work and making revisions
  • Compositions are often limited in length
  • Slow written production
  • Poor penmanship (e.g. poorly formed letters, incorrect use of capitalization, trouble with spacing, overly large handwriting)
  • Inability to copy correctly from a book or the blackboard

Oral Language Skills

  • Inability to concentrate on and to comprehend spoken language when presented rapidly
  • Difficulty in orally expressing concepts that they seem to understand
  • Difficulty speaking grammatically correct English
  • Difficulty following or having a conversation about an unfamiliar idea
  • Trouble telling a story in the proper sequence
  • Difficulty following oral or written directions

Mathematical Skills

  • *Incomplete mastery of basic facts (e.g. mathematical tables)
  • *Reveres numbers (e.g. 123 to 231 or 231)
  • *Confuses operational symbols, especially + and x
  • *Copies problems incorrectly from one line to another
  • *Difficulty recalling the sequence of operational concepts
  • *Difficulty comprehending word problems
  • *Difficulty understanding key concepts and applications to aid problem solving

Organizational and Study Skills

  • Difficulty with organization skills
  • Time management difficulties
  • Slow to start and to complete tasks
  • Repeated inability, on a day-to-day basis, to recall what has been taught
  • Lack of overall organization in taking notes
  • Difficulty interpreting charts and graphs
  • Inefficient use of library and reference materials
  • Difficulty preparing for and taking tests

Attention and Concentration

  • Trouble focusing and sustaining attention on academic tasks
  • Fluctuating attention span during lectures
  • Easily distracted by outside stimuli
  • Difficulty juggling multiple task demands and overloads quickly
  • Hyperactivity and excessive movements may accompany the inability to focus attention
Suggestions for College Students

If you know you have a learning disability and have documentation, talk with your instructors before the semester begins or following the first class. If you think the condition that you have may be a learning disability, but aren't sure, contact a staff member in the student services office for the physically challenged, counseling services, or learning assistance center on campus.

  1. Set realistic goals and priorities for course work.
  2. Be prepared to request "reasonable accommodations" in your course work so you can learn and demonstrate your knowledge of course material. This is your right under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which prohibits discrimination on the basis of a handicap.
  3. Become knowledgeable and comfortable about describing your disability so you can advocate for yourself with faculty.
  4. Keep only one calendar with all relevant dates, assignments, and appointments. Do not try to keep a schedule in your head.
  5. Sit toward the front of the classroom to maximize your contact and to reduce distractions.
  6. Use a tape recorder during lectures. Selectively tape-record key points using the "pause" switch.
  7. Listen to the tape or review your written notes as soon as possible after class to refresh your memory and to fill in any gaps.
  8. Estimate how long a given class assignment will take, generally planning on two hours outside of class for every hour in class. Build in study breaks; fatigue is a big time waster.
  9. If you learn better by listening to others and then discussing what you have learned, start a study group.
  10. Make notes of any questions you might have so that they can be answered before the next exam.
  11. If you are having trouble or feel overwhelmed, talk with the professor immediately. Do not hesitate to seek help. It is critical that you link-up with campus supports before you fall behind in your work.
Additional On-Line Resources:

National Center for Learning Disabilities

Scholarships are available for learning disabled students pursuing an undergraduate degree.

Department of Education


Colleges With Programs for Learning Disabled Students

"College Students with Learning Disabilities", a pamphlet distributed by AHEAD, Association on Higher Education and Disability, P.O. Box 21192, Columbus, OH 43221.

*From libraries, at book stores or write Peterson's Guides, P.O. Box 2123, Princeton, NJ 08543-2123, 800-338-3282

** Information adopted from

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