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Students with learning disabilities

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.

The dyslexic cognitive style

People who suffer from dyslexia are equally capable of learning, but learn differently, and these differences need to be recognized if they are to flourish academically. Several researchers have pointed out the fact that whereas the normal structure of the brain is to have a larger left than right side, people with dyslexia's brains are more symmetrical, with both left and right side being equally well developed.

This means that people with dyslexia tend to be good at tasks requiring a "right-brained" approach, such as visualizing, conceptualizing, seeing things from different perspectives, adopting a broad view. Some report the ability to see things in three dimensions, while others are good at tasks which require an innovative approach, and many excel at visual thinking, non-linear thinking, and recognizing patterns. Some writers even talk about the "gifts" of dyslexia, and the creativity of some people with dyslexia (see Morgan and Klein, 2000, for a summary of the research on dyslexia).

In a study of dyslexic and non-dyslexic children which required them to solve the Tower of Hanoi problem, the former fared better than the latter and managed to find the algorithm that was the key (Wszeborowska-Lipinska, 1998)

Students on business studies and management courses who have dyslexia may find that their gift for seeing the whole picture helps with corporate strategy, and their creativity may show itself in planning marketing campaigns.

However, dyslexia is indicated by a problem with phonological coding, which manifests itself in a difficulty acquiring some language skills. The part of the brain which deals with visual and auditory stimuli may be sluggish, although people with dyslexia differ as to which area they have most difficulty with. The following are some of the specific problems and difficulties which may be experienced:

  • Acquiring the basic rules of language, affecting grammar and spelling.
  • Fluent written expression, due partly to the above, but also to problems sequencing ideas and developing an "argument".
  • Producing written work in a short period of time, for example under exam conditions.
  • Comprehension of complex written material, partly due to the eye "jumping" on the page and words appearing in different places, letters getting switched, etc.
  • Poor proofreading skills as the student may not "see" errors.
  • Poor note taking as it's difficult to read/listen and write at the same time.
  • Slow handwriting (which also contributes to the above).
  • Poor short-term memory.
  • Managing time, working under pressing and managing (particularly multiple) deadlines.
  • Understanding directions.

The problem for people with dyslexia is that much learning is based on acquiring general rules and then applying them to specific situations. In particular, the "phonics" approach to spelling which is based on recognizing sounds may not work as people with dyslexia cannot "hear" the sounds. Emphasis on learning to read, and then learning through reading, may also not suit the dyslexic style. Dyslexic learners need to be able to relate to a particular context or to their own experience and make connections; they also respond to learning using a multisensory approach, drawing on visual and kinaesthetic abilities. In addition, much recent work on dyslexia has focused on adapting to individual learning styles, rather than imposing a particular style such as the phonics spelling method, and using the learner's strengths to build up their confidence and develop their own strategies for learning (Morgan and Klein, 2000).

Accommodating your learning style

To succeed as a dyslexic sufferer in higher education, you need to self-advocate. This means being aware of, and comfortable with, your needs, and sharing them with tutors so you can work with them on successful learning strategies. For example:

  • How extensive is your dyslexia and what cognitive areas does it affect?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Michelle Lintner, the 2006 winner of the Anne Ford Scholarship from the National Center for Learning Disabilities, embarked on studies to become an engineer. She believes strongly in the importance of being a good self-advocate, and that if you are open and honest with teachers and employers, they won't think any differently of you but will be willing to help:

"Self-advocacy means being willing to tell the truth ... if you show an interest in learning, then your teachers will help you achieve your goal."

The nature of the accommodations will obviously vary according to your disability and the following list is a generalized one. Some will need to be made with the help of your tutor, so you may need to present them with the ideas. Build on your strengths: people with dyslexia tend to be good at multisensory and kinaesthetic learning, which means they learn through all the senses, including those associated with sight and touch.

Classes and lectures

  • Lecturers can help students with dyslexia by using colour on their slides and providing other visual aids such as diagrams and flowcharts. This stimulates multisensory learning.
  • Sit at the front of the class – there will be less to distract you.
  • Ask your tutor to leave points on the whiteboard or overhead projector for as long as possible, to give you more chance to take them down.

Note taking

  • Ask the lecturer to provide notes beforehand.
  • Use mind maps to take notes, whether from books or from lectures – you can use visual imagery, and mind mapping is a non-linear technique.
  • Borrow someone else's notes.
  • Tape or record the lecture. You may feel uncomfortable about this and you should always get the tutor's permission, but you will find it invaluable to be able to listen to something time and time again so that it stays in your head.

Spelling and grammar

  • Work on non-phonic ways of spelling such as visual or lexical methods which entail "seeing" words.
  • Use mnemonics or strategies based on a personal connection with the word.
  • It helps in learning rules to work on words and sentences from your own work, so you can work from example to principle rather than the other way around.


  • The linear sequencing of ideas may be a problem. Try brainstorming your ideas in a mind map so that you are sure to capture them, you can then put them into a structure.
  • When it comes to making revisions, deal with proofreading difficulties by having someone read your work to you, or better still, revise it for you.

Time and organization

People with dyslexia tend to take longer over academic tasks, and it is important that you and your tutors understand this.

  • Ensure that you have a copy of the syllabus/course outline, as well as reading lists, before the start of the course.
  • Negotiate a longer deadline for assignments.
  • Break your assignment down into manageable chunks.
  • Check your understanding of the assignment title with your tutor.


It can be very demoralizing to get your assignment back covered in red; you might arrange with your subject tutor that you will work on spelling etc. with your special needs tutor, and that she concentrates on the content of your essay.


  • Skim the text first of all to get an idea of what it is about – when you have a focus, it's easier for the individual words to stand out. Use "PQ4R": Preview the text, raise Questions, then Read, Reflect, Recite and Review to check your understanding. (Also referred to as "SQ4R": Survey … ) If possible, get someone to read the book out to you.
  • To avoid too much reading, try and identify (you may need to ask your tutor to help you do this) the main texts, and concentrate on these.
  • Some people have a particular sensitivity to light, known as Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome (SSS). If you notice difficulty reading under particular types of light, experiment with different lighting conditions, or use filters placed over the page, for example a blue plastic filter.
  • You may find it easier to use "talking" versions of textbooks where they exist.
  • Be a strategic learner.

"Sometimes I do my own research if I haven't followed everything the tutor says in class, by looking things up on the Internet, for example if it's something about a new telescope. I do my own research and I can get the computer to read to me. At first, this took a lot of time – about 5-6 hours. But after a while I got the formula sorted out. You need to understand how much studying you need to do. You get quicker at looking things up online. Knowing how much you need to know is all important. For example, I recently took a history exam, and I asked the teacher, how many questions would there be on each chapter [of the set text]. I reckoned not to spend a lot of time on the chapter with one question, and more on the chapter with ten questions. You learn how to weigh things up and give and take. Once you get the hang of it, you become proficient at studying" (Michelle Lintner).


Dyscalculia is a learning disability that affects skill at mathematics – difficulties manifest themselves in understanding of concepts, symbols, basic facts about numbers, procedural steps, arithmetical skills, and problem solving. Business and management students thus afflicted may struggle with the more numerically based subjects, such as statistics and quantitative research methods, and arts graduates on postgraduate courses may be coming up against this difficulty for the first time.

  • Recognize that you need to proceed from the concrete to the semi-concrete to the abstract, rather than starting with an abstract rule and applying it to examples.
  • Draw on kinaesthetic skills – for example using calculators, plus things that you can manipulate.
  • Break problems down into small steps.
  • Relate to real life examples where possible – for example, most statistics textbooks include "real" case studies and examples.
  • Make sure you have plenty of practice.
  • Use graph paper so that the numbers can be kept in line.

Group work

  • For group assignments, try and take on the tasks that you are good at.
  • In a group discussion, make sure that you understand the question.
  • In a group assignment, as with an individual assignment, you need to pace yourself to avoid putting yourself under pressure and break the assignment down into manageable chunks. However the problem with groups is that the pace is collective, and you are at the mercy of the learning and work styles of other people, some of whom may be able to stay up all night to do something at the last minute. Try where possible to work in groups where there are other members with dyslexia.

Assessment and examinations

Examinations, and the stress they induce, may prove particularly problematic for people with dyslexia, who may have difficulty producing their best work under timed conditions.

  • Negotiate a longer time for the exam.
  • Investigate the possibility of dictating your answers, or using a computer to word process.
  • See that you are provided with an examination paper with large type.
  • In the case of multiple choice questions, you should be presented with one option at a time.
  • If exams simply cause too much stress even with the above provisions, investigate alternative methods of assessment – it may be that you can choose a course which does not have an exam.

Getting help from technology

Technology has liberated those with learning difficulties as it has those with visual and other physical problems. Here are some examples of common and more specific applications which may help:

  • Word processing can help with writing through its redrafting and editing facilities, and does away with the need to write by hand. However, it cannot help with inappropriate words, the grammar checks assume knowledge of the rules of grammar, and the spell checker may not solve all spelling problems.
  • Screen readers – these are pieces of software that read out text to you. This may help you "hear" errors, and can also help readers with SSS.
  • Reading on the screen. You can change background colours, fonts, etc. if you find reading on the screen difficult. You can change the preferences in your browser, and also change the background in Microsoft Word.
  • Planning programmes. Mind mapping was earlier referred to as a technique for taking notes and organizing ideas. Some software can facilitate this, such as Inspiration.
  • Study skills softwareWordswork is a piece of study software designed specifically for people with dyslexia by an experienced dyslexic tutor, using a multisensory approach with text and voiceover, graphics, sound effects, colour and humour to develop skills for successful learning.
  • Voice recognition – this helps you dictate your thoughts into a computer, and thereby avoid writing all together. This sounds almost too good to be true, the drawback is that you will have to invest a good amount of time "training" the software to recognize your voice. Dragon Dictate Classic Version 3 has been praised in this respect.

Know your rights

Particularly if you are an adult returner to education, it can seem very daunting to enlist your subject tutor's support in what you may still perceive as an embarrassing problem. However, some higher education institutions have a specific facility for learning support and tutors are there not to pass on information, but specifically to help you learn how to learn.

Remember also that depending on the legislative position of your country, the institution may be legally bound to provide help for students with disabilities.

In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990) guarantees the civil rights of the disabled, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973) requires educational institutions to provide reasonable modifications in the form of accommodations and auxiliary aids. These might include more time to complete examinations, the use of note takers, etc. There is no requirement to design special programmes (as with schools) and accommodations need to be made on an individual basis. It is also the responsibility of the student to "self-identify" and provide the necessary documentation proving the disability, for example a testing report and copy of the Individualized Education Program and Individualized Transition Plan.

In the UK, dyslexia is covered by the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, which came into force for schools and colleges in September 2002, requiring institutions to make "reasonable adjustments" to accommodate students with disabilities.



Morgan, E. and Klein, C. (2000), The Dyslexic Adult in a Non-Dyslexic World, Whurr Publishers, London, UK.

National Working Party on Dyslexia in Higher Education (1999), Dyslexia in Higher Education: Policy, Provision and Practice, The University of Hull, UK.

Wszeborowska-Lipinska, B. (1998), "Non-verbal problem-solving and learning styles in developmental dyslexia", Unpublished paper, University of Gdansk, Poland.

Further information

British Dyslexia Association

Davis Dyslexia Association International

International Dyslexia Association

Skill – National Bureau for Students with Disabilities

Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA)

National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD)