What is a Learning Disability?

The term “Learning Disabilities” (LD) was first used by a psychologist, Dr. Samuel Kirk, in 1962 to describe children who had “unexpected” difficulties in learning.

The difficulties were unexpected because these children were developing normally in many areas and did not have any of the conditions that might typically explain their difficulties in learning to read and write – they could see, hear, communicate, reason and problem solve, but they still struggled to develop literacy skills.

Two formal definitions of Learning Disabilities that are in current use include definitions developed by:

Since 1962, we have learned more about what Learning Disabilities “are” and what they “are not”.

What Learning Disabilities Are:


Individuals do not grow out of Learning Disabilities, although the impact may change with changing life demands.


Learning Disabilities are heterogeneous. There are many patterns of strengths and needs and levels of severity. Not all individuals with LD have the same strengths and difficulties. Different terms have been used to describe some of the different patterns of difficulties: dyslexia, dysgraphia, etc.

Involve difficulties in processing information

Individuals with LD can learn, but they learn differently because they process information differently. Their brains deal with information in different ways. The differences may be in how they take in information through the senses, in how they make sense of the information and give it meaning and/or in how they express what they know through speaking, writing, demonstrating, etc.

Result in academic under-achievement

For individuals with LD, the most obvious negative impact in their lives is on the development of academic skills, most often reading and writing.

Neurologically (brain) based

Brain research has shown that LD results from a difference in the way an individual’s brain is “wired”. Structural brain differences have been found. Most importantly, brain imaging studies have demonstrated that during reading, the activation patterns of brains of individuals with LD differ from those of normal readers’ brain.

Run in families

When the LD affects reading, between 25% and 50% of children with LD have a parent who has LD.

Do not “walk alone”

Individuals with LD often have other difficulties. For example, 30% to 50% also have Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Anxiety and depression are also common.

Dispelling Myths: What Learning Disabilities are NOT:

An Intellectual Disability

Individuals with LD have at least average intelligence. They do many things well and have an uneven profile of abilities and difficulties. This is in contrast to an overall intellectual disability that affects all aspects of learning and development.

A result of poor educational history

Individuals with LD have had opportunities to learn.

A result of socio-economic factors

LD occur across all socio-economic levels, although access to opportunities and supports may vary across income levels.

A result of cultural or linguistic differences

LD can occur in any cultural or economic group. Cross cultural research indicates that individuals exhibit characteristics associated with LD across the world.

A result of emotional disorders

Many individuals with LD experience anxiety and depression as a result of their learning difficulties, but the learning difficulties are not the result of such emotional disorders.

A result of vision or hearing problems

It is important to ensure that individuals do not have uncorrected hearing or vision problems.