Learning Disabilities

Curry School of Education

Definitions of Learning Disabilities

The definition of learning disabilities has been discussed pretty much since the time that parents and professionals began to use the term. Here are some (but not all) definitions that have been proposed in those discussions.

Among the precursors:

A brain-injured child is a child who before, during, or after birth has received an injury to, or suffered an infection of, the brain. As a result of such organic impairment, defects of the neuromuscular system may be present or absent, however such a child may show disturbances in perception, thinking, and emotional behavior, either separately or in combination. These disturbances can be demonstrated by specific tests. These disturbances prevent or impede a normal learning process. [A. A. Strauss, & L. Lehtinen. (1947). Psychopathology of the brain-injured child. New York: Grune & Stratton. {p. 4}.]

An early textbook:

A learning disability refers to a retardation, disorder, or delayed development in one or more of the processes of speech, language, reading, spelling, writing, or arithmetic resulting from a possible cerebral dysfunction and/or emotional or behavioral disturbance and not from mental retardation, sensory deprivation, or cultural or instruction factors. [Kirk, S. A. (1962). Educating exceptional children. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. (p. 261).]

An early educational view:

Children who have learning disorders are those who manifest an educationally significant discrepancy between their estimated intellectual potential and actual level of performance related to basic disorders in the learning processes, which may or may not be accompanied by demonstrable central nervous system dysfunction, and which are not secondary to generalized disturbance or sensory loss. [Bateman, B. (1965). An educator's view of a diagnostic approach to learning disorders. In J. Hellmuth (Ed.), Learning disorders (Vol. 1, 217-239). Seattle: Special Child.]

National Advisory Committee of Handicapped Children, headed by S. A. Kirk:

Children with special learning disabilities exhibit a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using spoken or written language. These may be manifested in disorders of listening, thinking, talking, reading, writing, spelling, or arithmetic. They include conditions which have been referred to as perceptual handicaps, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, developmental aphasia, etc. They do not include learning problems which are due primarily to visual, hearing, or motor handicaps, to mental retardation, emotional disturbance or to environmental deprivation. [National Advisory Committee on Handicapped Children to the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped, Office of Education, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, First Annual Report on Handicapped Children, 1968]

Public Law 94-142:

Specific learning disability means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual handicaps, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include children who have learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps, or mental retardation, or emotional disturbance or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (1981):

Learning disabilities is a generic term that refers to a heterogenous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning or mathematical abilities. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual and presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction. Even though a learning disability may occur concomitantly with other handicapping conditions (e.g., sensory impairment, mental retardation, social and emotional disturbance), or environmental influences (e.g., cultural differences, insufficient/inappropriate instruction, psychogenic factors), it is not the direct result of those conditions or influences. [As reported in Hammill, D. D., Leigh, J. E., McNutt, G., & Larsen, S. C. (1981). A new definition of learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 4, 336-342.]

U. S. Interagency Committee on Learning Disabilities (1987):

Learning disabilities is a generic term that refers to a heterogenous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities, or of social skills. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual and presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction. Even though a learning disability may occur concomitantly with other handicapping conditions (e.g., sensory impairment, mental retardation, social and emotional disturbance), with socioenvironmental influences (e.g., cultural differences, insufficient or inappropriate instruction, psychogenic factors), and especially with attention deficit disorder, all of which may cause learning problems, a learning disability is not the direct result of those conditions or influences. [As cited in Kavanagh, J. F., & Truss, T. J. (1988). Learning disabilities: Proceedings of the national conference. Parkton, MD: York. {pp. 550-551}. The Interagency Committee used underlining reproduced here as italics to indicate differences with the definition of the National Joint Committee.

National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (1989):

Learning disabilities is a generic term that refers to a heterogenous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual, presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction, and may occur across the life span. Problems in self-regulatory behaviors, social perception, and social interaction may exist with learning disabilities but do not by themselves constitute a learning disability. Although a learning disability may occur concomitantly with other handicapping conditions (for example, sensory impairment, mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance) or with extrinsic factors (such as cultural differences, insufficient or inappropriate instruction), they are not the result of those conditions or influences. [As quoted in Myers, P. I., & Hammill, D. D. (1990). Learning disabilities: Basic concepts, assessment practices, and instructional strategies. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed. {p. 8}]

For further information:

Hammill, D. D. (1990). On defining learning disabilities: An emerging consensus. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 23, 74-84.

Kavale, K. A., & Forness, S. R. (1992). History, definition, and diagnosis. In N. N. Singh & I. L. Beale (Eds.). Learning disabilities: Nature, theory, and treatment (pp. 3-43). New York: Springer-Verlag.

Lloyd, J., Hallahan, D. P., & Kauffman, J. M. (1980). Learning disabilities: A review of selected topics. In L. Mann & D. A. Sabatino (Eds.), Fourth review of special education (pp. 35-60). New York: Grune & Stratton.


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Developer

John W. Lloyd, johnl@virginia.edu

updated: 8 November 1994