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Students with learning disabilities

Options:     Print Version - Students with learning disabilities, part 1 Print view

Article Sections

  1. Introduction: what are learning disabilities and who has them?
  2. The dyslexic cognitive style
  3. Accommodating your learning style
  4. Getting help from technology
  5. Know your rights
  6. Sources

By Margaret Adolphus

Introduction: what are learning disabilities and who has them?

If you have a learning disability, then you are likely to be of normal or above average intelligence, but have a difficulty with a basic psychological process which affects language and possibly other areas such as mathematics or planning. This difficulty may manifest itself in a range of associated activities, and notably in a disparity between the standard of written work and oral understanding. Learning difficulties are neurologically based; they are not the result of upbringing although there may be an environmental factor; they affect people of all social classes and ethnic backgrounds.

Different terms are used in the UK and the USA to describe learning disabilities. In the UK, the term dyslexia is commonly used as an umbrella term to refer to various disorders around the area of language and maths, whereas in the US dyslexia refers to reading disorders, while the umbrella term "learning disorders" is preferred to describe:

  • Dyslexia – difficulty with language processing, affecting reading, writing and spelling.
  • Dyscalculia – impaired mathematical ability.
  • Dyspraxia – difficulty with coordination and manual dexterity.
  • Dysgraphia – problems with written expression, particularly handwriting.

Some definitions

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) – US legislation protecting people with disabilities:

"The term means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia."

The website of the National Center for Learning Disabilities:

"A learning disability (LD) is a neurological disorder that affects the brain's ability to receive, process, store and respond to information."

National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (1990):

"A heterogeneous group of disorders manifest by significant differences in the acquisition and use of 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 ... "

Bournemouth University (1998):

"Dyslexia manifests itself as an imbalance of skills whereby the dyslexic is unable to commit to paper ideas and information which are commensurate with their intellectual ability as evidenced by spoken understanding or demonstration."

For the purposes of this article, the term dyslexia will be used with its British meaning, as an umbrella term.

More and more people with learning disorders are entering higher education: in the US, nearly a third of all students with disabilities have learning disabilities, while one estimate has put the number of students with dyslexia in the UK as 1.2 to 1.5 per cent of all students, or 20,400 to 25,500 (Morgan and Klein, 2000). For this reason, academic staff need to learn how to respond to the needs of this group.

A British study (National Working Party on Dyslexia in Higher Education, 1999) concluded that in those universities where there was an established system of support, degree classifications did not differ significantly between dyslexic and non-dyslexic students.

Students with dyslexia may have been diagnosed as children, in which case they may have received some help and be familiar with their needs. Many, however, at least in the UK, will fall into the category of mature students who have always known they had a problem, but only recently been able to put a name to it. In the latter case, the discovery may be the beginning of finding a solution.