Understanding Learning Disabilities

Learning Disabilities (LD) are common and affect approximately 5 – 15% of people around the world. They are considered an “invisible disability”.

What Causes an LD?

Learning Disabilities have biological origins even though the exact causes are not truly understood. A combination of genetic (i.e., hereditary) and environmental (e.g., injury before or during birth, low birth weight) factors cause differences in the brain. This affects how the individual perceives or processes different types of information.

We can actually see physical differences between the brains of those with LD and those who do not through neuroimaging. Depending on the LD, we can see differences in size and level of activity in certain areas of the brain when compared to the brain of the same age without a LD. Simply put, their brains are wired differently.

While the exact causes of Learning Disabilities are unknown, we do know that they are NOT caused by:
– ineffective teaching
– poor parental support
– economic disadvantages
– health-related problems
– lack of exposure to schooling/instruction
– sensory deficits

These factors, though, can contribute to a student’s learning progress and later academic success.

Does Having an LD Affect People Differently?

There is a saying that can apply to the LD population: “If you have met one person with a Learning Disability, you have met one person with a Learning Disability.” This saying highlights the fact that LDs can show up differently in each individual.

A key feature of those with an LD is the unusually high level of effort and support required for the individual to achieve at the same level as their peers despite their strong potential.

What Are Increased Risks with having an LD?

Without identification and proper support, individuals with an LD are at an increased risk for negative outcomes in many areas of life.

Social and Emotional Difficulties: Individuals with LD are significantly more likely than their non-LD peers to struggle with social and emotional difficulties for many reasons. For example, individuals with LD can have significant frustration and struggles with academics.

Education: Data from Statistics Canada in 2012 shows that individuals with learning and attention issues are significantly less likely than those without LD/ADHD to complete post-secondary education. When not supported, individuals with LD can experience significant frustration and struggles with academics.

Employment: In the workforce, individuals with LD/ADHD have higher rates of unemployment, underemployment and lower incomes compared to other young adults.

Mental Health: The data also shows that they report mental health issues at more than twice the rate of young people without LD. Additionally, these individuals are at a greater risk of engaging in risky behaviours (e.g., alcohol/drug use) and suicide.
It is important to remember that we are talking about an increased chance of problems. These problems are not inevitable. Proper diagnosis and treatment of of an LD are important ways to decrease the risks individuals will face. Furthermore, providing people with opportunities to find “islands of competence” (i.e.,sources of pride and accomplishment) can help to build their self-worth and resiliency.

How to Support People with LD

UNDERSTAND LEARNING DISABILITIES: Developing a greater understanding about Learning Disabilities is an important way to reduce stress for the person living with an LD, and also for other people in their lives.

Benefits include:
– The individual gains an understanding of their learning profile, strategies to manage their specific LDs, and also have a greater awareness of their strengths.
– A person is more likely to advocate or ask for help for themselves if they understand how the disorder affects them.
– A person is less likely to feel bad about themselves if the people around them understand their struggles and the best ways to support them.
– When family members, teachers, and peers/colleagues learn about LDs, they are less likely to be frustrated with the individual.
– They are more likely to have appropriate expectations and use helpful strategies.
– Everyone can adopt a strength-based approach; appreciate and highlight all of the positive skills and aptitudes the person has, while recognizing the extra effort the individual must put into managing their LD.

There is no way to “cure” Learning Disabilities but research supports the two most common treatments: remediation and accommodation.

(Special teaching techniques) Remedial instruction targets the particular skill in which the individual is showing gaps. For children, remedial instruction may be provided as part of a student’s school programming (e.g., pull-out instruction in small groups) or arranged outside of school by families privately.

Adults can also access remedial instruction in the community and in some cases through post-secondary institutions.

Accommodations help to level the playing field for individuals with Learning Disabilities and ADHD.

Children: For students in the school setting, accommodations do not change the curriculum the child is expected to learn. Instead, they provide what the child needs in order to access the curriculum (i.e., changes how they learn). In other words, they lower the barriers in the classroom, not the bar!

Examples of accommodations include:
– instructional/environmental
– testing
– assistive technologies

Adults: Adults with a diagnosed disability, including an LD or ADHD, have a right to accommodations in both the post-secondary and workplace settings.

In our 21st century world, technology is important for everybody, but it particularly represents a key strategy in supporting individuals with LDs.
Assistive Technology involves any device, equipment, or system that allows an individual with a disability to work around their challenges. It can vary from very simple technology (e.g., calculator) to more complex (e.g., text-to- speech software).
Many assistive technology tools can be used throughout the student’s education, including at the post-secondary level, and in the workplace.

The type of remedial instruction and accommodations needed by an individual will depend on their learning profile and specific LDs. These may change as the individual develops effective strategies or is faced with different demands.


Foothills Academy Parent Handout: Learning Disabilities – What Parents Need to Know