Whole life practice – understanding learning disabilities

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One of the most important tasks of an adult literacy educator today is to learn about how learning disabilities shape our work. While most established research and practice in the area of learning disabilities relates to children, there are now many organizations and resources designed to support adults with learning disabilities. Click here to go directly to the “Resources” page.

There are different kinds of learning-related disabilities. Perhaps the most common is dyslexia, a reading and spelling related disability that affects between 10 – 15% of the population. Dyslexia accounts for nearly 80% of all learning disabilities. It is often (but not always) accompanied by dysgraphia, which makes writing very slow and difficult, dyscalculia, which affects learning and using number concepts, dyspraxia, which affects short-term memory, organization skills and routine fine motor skills.

Non-verbal (auditory or visual processing) disabilities affect verbal processing (speaking), auditory processing (listening) and expression.

While diagnoses are helpful to adult learners who may have a learning disability, in practice, learning disabilities in adulthood can be difficult to accurately diagnose, and an adult in a literacy program may experience a range of learning difficulties, including emotional and self-esteem difficulties.

This is the official definition of learning disabilities from the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada.

Learning Disabilities refer to a number of disorders which may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding or use of verbal or nonverbal information. These disorders affect learning in individuals who otherwise demonstrate at least average abilities essential for thinking and/or reasoning. As such, learning disabilities are distinct from global intellectual deficiency.

Learning disabilities result from impairments in one or more processes related to perceiving, thinking, remembering or learning. These include, but are not limited to: language processing; phonological processing; visual spatial processing; processing speed; memory and attention; and executive functions (e.g. planning and decision-making).

Learning disabilities range in severity and may interfere with the acquisition and use of one or more of the following:

  • Oral language (e.g. listening, speaking, understanding);
  • Reading (e.g. decoding, phonetic knowledge, word recognition, comprehension);
  • Written language (e.g. spelling and written expression); and
  • Mathematics (e.g. computation, problem solving).
  • Learning disabilities may also involve difficulties with organizational skills, social perception, social interaction and perspective taking.

Learning disabilities are lifelong. The way in which they are expressed may vary over an individual’s lifetime, depending on the interaction between the demands of the environment and the individual’s strengths and needs. Learning disabilities are suggested by unexpected academic under-achievement or achievement which is maintained only by unusually high levels of effort and support. (LDAC, 2002)

More ideas about learning disabilities

  • This definition includes acquired learning disabilities, taking into account the effects of accidents, drug abuse, sickness, exposure to toxins, and so on, on people’s learning.
  • Importantly, learning disabilities not only affect education and schooling, they manifest in every aspect of people’s lives.
  • Learning disabilities often “walk beside” or “co-exist” with other neurological and/or social issues such as AD/HD, FASD, depression and so on, but these are not learning disabilities per se.
  • Learning disabilities exist independent of ethnicity, social class, language and social background.
  • While learning disabilities may significantly interfere with reading and writing processes, they do not prevent learning. Even people with very severe learning disabilities can learn, but they need specific strategies and accommodations, both inside the classroom and in their everyday lives (Hatt, 2003; Pannucci and Walmsley, 2007).
  • Many people prefer to think about learning disabilities as “learning differences” or “learning difficulties” rather than disorders. In the United Kingdom, the term “learning difficulties” is used to refer to difficulties with learning, while “learning disabilities” refers to developmental or intellectual disabilities.
  • Many people also regard learning disabilities such as dyslexia as a “gift” or a way of seeing the world that affords creativity and new ideas. In this vein, some advocates and researchers call for strategies that recognize learners’ strengths and improve teaching.
  • Recent research in the vein of neuro-plasticity suggests that brains can change over time, and with specific exercises, people can re-learn or strengthen areas of difficulty.

How do we identify learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities in adulthood are most commonly identified according to the “discrepancy” model” (Hatt, 2003; Erskine and Seymour, 2005), by which academic difficulties persist in spite of success in other areas of learning or everyday life, and in spite of the effort expended to learn. In other words, a person who is a wonderful musician, community leader, successful and experiences consistent difficulties with reading, writing, spelling, finding their way around, and so on, regardless of how hard they try and how much instruction they have received, may have a learning disability.


Erskine, J.M. & Seymour, P.H.K.. (2005). Proximal analysis of developmental dyslexia in adulthood: the cognitive mosaic model. Journal of Educational Psychology 97(3), 406-424.

Hatt, Pat. (2003). Literacy demonstrations accommodations for adults with learning disabilities: balancing accommodation with skills integrity. Toronto, Ont.: Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario

Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC). (2002, January 30). Official definition of learning disabilities. Retrieved March 29, 2012 from: http://www.ldac-acta.ca/en/learn-more/ld-defined.html

Pannucci, L. & Walmsley, S.A. (2007). Supporting learning-disabled adults in literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 50(7), 540-546.