Learning Disability: What the Heck Is It?

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By Emerson Dickman

May 2017

The Problem

Not long ago I turned to the revered scientist sitting next to me during a meeting of the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities and asked, “What is a learning disability?”  After a thoughtful pause, he responded, “Learning disability is a term we invented to provide services to children in need of additional help.” I could not disagree. The next question is, “Who are these children?” Dr. Google suggests that they

  • “have average to above average intellectual abilities, yet are failing,”
  • “have difficulty acquiring knowledge and skills,”
  • have “a neurological condition that interferes with [their] ability to store, process, or produce information,” and
  • have a “brain that works or is structured differently.”

Unfortunately for all of the definitions on Google, there are few, if any, that could not be explained by an old football injury or an extended absence from school. Conclusion: Everyone uses the term and no one knows what it means. 

What We Think We Know  

Learning disability is a term that refers to a neurobiological profile that, without effective intervention and in spite of quality instruction, predicts difficulty inconsistent with overall potential in the development of salient adaptive skills. The lesson to our system of education in the United States is that the greatest good is found by preventing need—not by postponing help.

Reasonable Assumptions

  1. Every human experiences variations in brain function. Talent and lack of talent are expressions of variations in brain function.
  2. Only those variations in brain function that impact adaptive functioning are meaningful. For example, the need for an innate sense of direction has been replaced by a phone that knows where we have been, where we are going, and how to get wherever we want to go.
  3. Brain function is malleable (i.e., can be changed). Therefore, the question is, “Does the architecture of our brain explain our behavior, or does our behavior explain the architecture of our brain?”

Learning Disability – A Construct

In spite of the ubiquitous use of the term, there remains significant disagreement among laymen, educators, and scientists regarding the concept of learning disability. A common understanding of what is meant by the term learning disability is necessary to clear up myths and misconceptions, link the public to resources, and to identify meaningful interventions. In 2002 the issue of Learning Disabilities was addressed by the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education created by President George W. Bush on October 2, 2001 (PCESE), the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), and by The Learning Disabilities Roundtable (the Roundtable). The following construct is not inconsistent with the findings of the Roundtable. The Learning Disabilities Roundtable consisted of ten organizations sponsored by the Division of Research to Practice Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education. The report of the Roundtable entitled Specific Learning Disabilities: Finding Common Ground was published July 25, 2002.

Proposed Construct

Learning disabilities reflect natural variations in brain function that predict unexpected difficulty learning skills and concepts valued by the culture in which the individual is expected to perform (e.g., academic achievement, social competence). Such difficulty is not generalized to all areas of learning.

What Is Known About Learning Disabilities

  1. Supportive life experience and/or appropriate instruction can make learning disabilities less severe. Failure can be prevented! Profiles that predict disability can be modified (i.e., made less severe) by environment.
  2. Learning disabilities may co-exist with, but are distinct from, variations in achievement due to other causes (e.g., “an old football injury,” educational deprivation, physical disability, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorders, general intellectual limitations, emotional disturbance).
  3. Secondary consequences may include a diminished sense of self-efficacy and/or social marginalization. 

Twice Exceptional Students 

Even this intentionally simplistic discussion would be incomplete if it did not address the increasingly popular belief that an individual with a learning disability is somehow intrinsically twice exceptional and concomitantly superior. Courage, heroism, leadership, and so many admired human traits are often seen to emerge in response to challenge. For instance, courage can only exist in an atmosphere of fear.

A learning disability is not a gift; it is a challenge. It is a challenge that allows strengths, that might otherwise have remained unexplored, to grow and bloom.

 A learning disability is not a gift; it is a challenge. It is a challenge that allows strengths, that might otherwise have remained unexplored, to grow and bloom. For example, the blind hear better; the deaf see better; and if you don’t have a car, you learn to take the bus. Promoting exceptionalism in every child is a shared goal of both parents and educators. By the “lighting of a fire” (W.B. Yeats) of passion, without requiring that they suffer the challenge of adversity, parents and educators can make it possible for all children to explore their strengths.

LD and IQ

With regard to dyslexia, Samuel Orton observed, “Intelligence does not correlate with reading skill.”  In 1902, James Hinshelwood commented, “The problem is localized; it is not generalized to all areas of learning.” In 2010, research done at Yale concluded, “IQ is linked to the level of ability to read in the neurotypical individual, but is not linked to the level of ability to read in the dyslexic individual.” In other words, like hair color or talent, intelligence has no bearing on the existence of a learning disability.

The Significance of Adaptive Functioning

Adaptive functioning is the physical, mental, and social ability necessary to carry out the activities demanded by the culture in which one lives. In 1993, Vygotsky said (paraphrasing), “The term disability is not determined by the deficit itself, but its social consequences.” What we refer to as a learning disability today, we know to be a neural system or focal weakness that predicts a manifest underachievement, which has a derivative impact. As used in this context, I intend focal weakness to refer to the point of origin or neurobiological variable involved that “predicts” a manifest underachievement (i.e., the ability negatively impacted by the focal weakness), which, in turn, predicts a derivative impact (i.e., the consequential negative influence on a salient adaptive function).

Every human has focal weaknesses that result in manifest underachievement, but it is the culture that determines whether it will have a derivative impact. The previous edition of Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-IV ) defined “disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning).” (Emphasis added.) Humans are heterogeneous; we differ from each other in many ways, but the only differences that count are those differences that are important enough to interfere with our ability to perform in the culture in which we live. Jack Fletcher, Ph.D. has said, “LD is an interaction of biological and environmental factors.” From the measurement perspective, learning disability is a moving target. Yesterday’s weaknesses are today’s strengths (e.g., the powerful person in today’s world is a hacker, not a Hercules).

Learning Disabilities Are Dimensional

Learning disabilities are simply a variation on natural development and are difficult to quantify. There are other constructs that are even more difficult to measure (e.g., a heavyweight boxer and a 10-year-old child would quantify pain very differently). The distance of the cut-point from the mean depends on the reason for identification (e.g., monitor, intervene, remediate and provide services, research). The further the cut-point from the mean, the less likely is the possibility of including false positives in the identified population. A certain number of false positives are expected and tolerated at the monitoring stage, but a similar number at the research stage may be totally unacceptable. It is critical that the difference between diagnosis and eligibility for services be distinguished.

Diagnosis is clinically driven and eligibility is resource driven.

Diagnosis is clinically driven and eligibility is resource driven. It is entirely possible, therefore, that a child can be diagnosed with a learning disability and not be found eligible for special education and related services.


Consensus in understanding what the term learning disability means is important because children in need are currently victims of a system that requires quantifiable proof of failure before help is offered. The motivation to change must be simple, understandable, and compelling. The foregoing construct is simple, understandable, and (I believe) common sense:

  • Every human being experiences variations in brain function.
  • Only those variations that impact adaptive functioning are meaningful.
  • Failure is not a prerequisite—disability can often be prevented.
    • The existence of a learning disability is not a proxy for intelligence.

The construct of the theory of evolution will last through the ages; however, that which evolves is ever changing. The construct of what learning disabilities are should not change— even though what may be considered a learning disability will change as the needs of the culture change.


At present, our educational system has no foundation for understanding LD. As Reid Lyon has said, “If you don’t know the cause you get educational paradigms built on faulty assumptions.” A similar comment is attributed to Leonardo DaVinci, “Those who fall in love with practice without science are like a sailor who enters a ship without a helm or compass, and can never be certain whither he is going.”

The concept of learning disabilities is widely misunderstood and an ability to simply and accurately describe the concept has powerful potential. For those who do not understand the concept, remediation is a waste of time and accommodations are unfair. Unfortunately, it is the individual’s “sea of strengths,” to which Dr. Sally Shaywitz refers, that is so often overlooked. If unrecognized or untreated, there is no learning disability that does not have the ability to pollute a sea of strengths.

Other Nutshells

Februsary 2017
Do We Need a New Definition of Dyslexia?

Emerson Dickman is an attorney and has been an advocate for individuals with disabilities and their families for more than forty years. Among the cases he has handled are leading precedents (New Jersey Supreme Court) protecting the due process rights of pupils in special education (Lascari) and the constitutional rights of adults with developmental disabilities (J.E.).

Emerson is a past president of the International Dyslexia Association and a former IDA representative to the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities.  He is currently a member of the Professional Advisory Boards of the Center for Development and Learning and The Children’s Dyslexia Centers. In the past, he has served as secretary of the Arc of New Jersey, a member of the Professional Advisory Board for the National Center for Learning Disabilities (six years), a member of the Learning Disabilities Roundtable sponsored by the Division of Research to Practice of the U.S. Department of Education, chairman of the Protection and Advocacy Agency for the State of New Jersey (five years), and a founding board member and secretary of the Alliance for Accreditation and Certification (for Structured Language Education). Emerson has received numerous honors including the 2012 Margaret Byrd Rawson Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Dyslexia Association.

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