When I attended graduate school to become an educational psychologist, I remember asking a teaching assistant of mine, “What actually is a learning disability?” She replied, “depends on who you ask.” That was the moment when I realized that I was entering a field that was complex and grey, not black and white.
Over time, I came to understand that a lot of different information is needed to determine if someone meets the criteria for a learning disability. While standardized tests scores are very important, it is also important to understand how the person has responded to attempts from others to help them with their learning challenges. This is often referred to as “response to intervention.” With extra help and specific supports, some people will improve a lot, while others will continue to struggle. Those who continue to struggle with learning may have a learning disability.
To define what a learning disability is, let’s start by defining what it isn’t:
- A person who struggles with learning because they are learning in a second language. Additionally, they did not have difficulty learning in their first language.
- A student who has difficulty remembering and retaining information in class because their family does not have enough money to afford regular meals. It is hard for them to focus and learn when they are hungry.
- A person who has difficulty reading because they have a vision impairment.
- A student who is quite behind in their academic learning because they missed several days of school due to a medical condition.
Basically, if there is a common sense reason why someone is having trouble with learning (such as the ones above), that’s probably the best reason. If it is less obvious as to why someone is struggling with reading, writing or math, then we might be dealing with a learning disability.
This brings us to the official definition. A learning disability is an unexpected difficulty with learning, remembering or processing information that affects academic performance (i.e., reading, writing, mathematics). The learning disability is unexpected because the person must have average or above intelligence (compared to their peers) and the academic challenges that they experience cannot be due to outside factors, such as the examples above. Given the person’s intellectual capabilities (measured by intelligence tests), their struggle with learning is unexpected or surprising.
With that being said, it is important to mention that the definition of learning disabilities often differs from province to province and state to state (and country to country!). It is somewhat differently defined by the American Psychiatric Association as compared to the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada. For a deeper dive into the differences between these definitions see “To Revise or not to Revise: The Official LDAC Definition of Learning Disabilities Versus DSM-5 Criteria.”
To sum, a person may have a learning disability if there is no clear reason for their learning challenges and if they continue to struggle with learning despite being provided with specific supports. If you want to learn more about how a learning disability is identified check out our blog “What is a Psychoeducational Assessment?”