What Are Learning Disabilities? PDF Print E-mail

Frank E. Vargo, Ed. D.
Nicholas D. Young, Ph.D., Ed.D.

The term “learning disability” can be confusing and even anxiety-provoking for parents. In addition, learning disabilities can be defined and understood differently in different countries, and even within various regions of the United States.

Whatever geographical regions you live in and whatever educational systems you are dealing with, there are some fundamental concepts that are commonly accepted involving the understanding of learning disabilities. To begin with, the term “learning disabilities” is actually a general term that describes specific kinds of learning problems. Such problems, to be considered a type of learning disability, must be primarily related to an individual’s innate learning abilities, and must not be primarily due to environmental factors. In other words, an individual with actual learning disabilities is either born with those issues or acquires them through events such as a brain/head injury. Researchers think that learning disabilities are caused by differences in how a person's brain works and how it processes information. Within a learning disability model, it is understood that children with such learning difficulties are not "dumb" or "lazy." Individuals with learning disabilities, in fact, usually have average or above average intelligence, but they process information differently from more typical learners their age.

It is important to restate that by most accepted definitions, individuals with learning disabilities have at least average-range general intelligence, with specific areas of learning problems that can cause a person to have trouble learning and using certain academic and education-related skills. The educational skill sets most often affected by specific learning difficulties include areas of

  • basic reading (word identification/word decoding);
  • reading fluency skills;
  • reading comprehension;
  • writing;
  • mathematics calculation;
  • mathematics problem solving;
  • listening (listening comprehension);
  • speaking (oral expression);
  • reasoning;
  • learning and memory.

It is important for parents and teachers to note that the individual patterns of learning disabilities typically vary from person to person. For instance, while one student may have specific trouble with various aspects of reading and writing, another student may have primary difficulties in language processing and thinking that also affect reading and writing.

Learning disabilities are more common than most people realize. For instance, it has been documented that as many as one out of every five people in the United States has a recognized form of a learning disability. Consequently, almost three million children in the U.S. (ages 6 through 21) have some form of a learning disability and receive special education in school.

Parents often ask if there is a “cure” for learning disabilities. While there is no "cure" for such innate learning issues, children and adults with learning disabilities can be taught ways to “learn around” their specific learning problems by obtaining and using appropriate learning strategies specific to them. As such, children and adults with learning disabilities are capable of becoming academically successful and being high achievers. With accurate identification and the right help, children and adults with learning disabilities can and do learn successfully.

Frank E. Vargo, Ed. D., is a professor of Graduate Studies in the Master of Arts (M.A.) with Concentrations in Psychology and Counseling of Union Institute & University, Vermont College. In addition, Dr. Vargo is the director of his clinic, The Fireside Center for Psychological and Educational Services in Leominster, Massachusetts, and he is a pediatric developmental neuropsychologist at North Shore Children’s Hospital in Salem, Massachusetts. Dr. Vargo’s specializations include the diagnosis and treatment of children and adults with learning disabilities and neurodevelopmental disorders, and he is a highly regarded adult, child, and family therapist.

Nicholas D. Young, Ph.D., Ed.D., has worked in diverse educational roles for over 20 years including serving as director of student services, principal, graduate professor, higher education administrator, and superintendent of schools. Dr. Young currently serves as the Past President of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (MASS) and as the Chair of MASS Small and Rural Schools Task Force. He has presented and published widely on a variety of topics in education and psychology.