Learning Disabilities and Assistive Technologies Guide: Chapter 1 - Understanding Learning Disabilities

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Understanding Learning Disabilities

Broadly defined, the term learning disability has been used to describe a variety of problems in acquiring, storing, and/or retrieving information. People with learning disabilities have difficulty taking information in through the senses and processing the information with accuracy to the brain. The information becomes scrambled, like a short circuit, a distorted radio signal, or a fuzzy television picture. Learning disabilities occur irrespective of race, culture or class. People with learning disabilities possess average or above average intelligence levels; however, the disability is often confused with other difficulties including slow learning, retardation, emotional and/or behavioral disabilities.

Thought to be a neurologically based nervous system disorder, learning disabilities are not the result of visual, hearing, and/or physical disabilities; mental retardation; emotional disturbance; acquired brain injury; ineffective instruction or lack of motivation to learn; cultural diversity; and/or socio-economic conditions. Learning disabilities can be genetic or acquired and may accompany other disabilities such as deficits in sight and hearing. They may also be the result of birth trauma, low birth weight, lead poisoning, fetal alcohol syndrome/effect, and long-term chemical dependence.

The inaccurate sensory transmissions to the brain may often lead to difficulty learning and performing in training and job settings, as well as to emotional instability. The most common manifestations occur in the areas of reading, writing, and/or mathematics, subsequently affecting a broad range of skills and functions. Additionally, manifestations are commonly found in attention, reasoning and processing, memory, oral communication, coordination and motor functions, social competencies, and executive functioning skills such as organizing, problem solving, prioritizing, and self-management.

This condition is the most neglected, most misunderstood disability due to its hidden nature--and there is no cure. However, with appropriate accommodations and training strategies, the person with learning disabilities can learn to take advantage of strengths and minimize weaknesses, and thus enhance the potential of success in training and employment environments.

Without reasonable accommodations, the person with learning disabilities is presented with innumerable barriers. The inability to demonstrate skills adequately results in poor performance evaluations, stress related health problems, and job instability, not to mention the unrealized productivity standards of the employer. Without appropriate education and training, there are few employment opportunities which allow advancement.

What are we looking for in the adult or adolescent learner suspected of having a learning disability? Most individuals with learning disabilities display a number of characteristics at one time or another and in varying degrees. These characteristics are listed under "General Characteristics."

Characteristics of Learning Disabilities

General Characteristics

Most individuals with learning disabilities display a number of characteristics at one time or another and in varying degrees. These characteristics are listed under "General Characteristics" and include:

☐ Auditory and visual deficits

☐ Oral/Verbal Expressive Language

☐ Memory/Recall

☐ Reasoning/Processing

☐ Organization

Auditory and visual deficits

Auditory and visual deficits affect one’s ability to develop and use language effectively; the effects are most apparent in reading, math, writing, and spelling skills. In both instances, the central nervous system is not processing symbols correctly.

  • The individual:

☐ demonstrates variable or unpredictable performance;

☐ has difficulty staying on task or using a procedure past the point of its being appropriate;

☐ is able to learn information presented in one way, but not in another;

☐ experiences severe underachievement in one or more of the basic academic areas (reading, writing, spelling, math);

☐ reveals an obviously uneven profile on a battery of tests (showing real strengths and real weaknesses);

☐ has generally poor work and organizational habits;

☐ seems to lack resourcefulness.

Note: Many of these observed learning characteristics and behaviors result from problems that the individual experiences in the areas of visual discrimination and visual memory, as well as auditory discrimination and auditory memory.

  • Visual discrimination refers to the learner’s ability to retain a full mental image of what s/he has seen. In both instances, the central nervous system is not processing symbols correctly.
  • Visual memory refers to the learner's ability to store and recall what has been seen.
  • Auditory discrimination involves the ability to recognize the differences between sounds. The result of an auditory deficit is that the * individual fails to hear vowel or soft consonant sounds in spoken words.
  • Auditory memory refers to the learner’s ability to store and recall what has been heard.

Auditory and visual deficits affect one’s ability to develop and use language effectively; the effects are most apparent in reading, math, writing, and spelling skills.

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Oral/Verbal Expressive Language

The individual:

☐ omits or uses words inappropriately;

☐ has problems explaining things logically;

☐ has trouble expressing thoughts concisely (forgetting, confusing, or having difficulty articulating words);

☐ has trouble with telephone conversations;

☐ frequently misunderstands verbal communications (because of auditory discrimination problems, the person may process the sounds in words out of sequence, e.g., hears “aminal” instead of “animal”);

☐ has difficulty expressing herself in group settings;

☐ substitutes words incorrectly;

☐ has trouble retrieving known words;

☐ has problems making generalizations;

☐ is hesitant to speak out in class or at work;

☐ has difficulty listening;

☐ manifests slow verbal information processing;

☐ has trouble understanding words or concepts;

☐ has difficulty selecting relevant information;

☐ has auditory sequencing problems;

☐ has problems organizing ideas and expressing ideas in words;

☐ misinterprets language subtleties (e.g., tone of voice, sarcasm);

☐ has difficulty following complex directions.

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  • The individual:

☐ has difficulty with short-term memory (e.g., following simple and/or multi-step instructions, remembering material read and/or information presented orally);

☐ cannot remember personal history or data (long-term memory); q has problems repeating information (saying the same thing over and over without realizing it);

☐ has difficulty synthesizing discussion (time, place, events);

☐ has difficulty retaining information without excessive rehearsal, practice, or other memory techniques;

☐ has trouble remembering information presented orally;

☐ has trouble remembering information read;

☐ has trouble with multiple directions;

☐ experiences difficulty retaining recently learned material;

☐ has problems recalling simple instructions (e.g., how to deposit money in the bank).

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  • The individual:

☐ has difficulty absorbing major ideas from oral presentations (instructions, lectures, discussions);

☐ makes frequent errors, both verbal and written;

☐ needs information to be repeated and reviewed;

☐ demonstrates poor decision-making skills;

☐ has poor abstract reasoning skills;

☐ shows poor cause/effect reasoning;

☐ has trouble recognizing and learning from mistakes;

☐ cannot recognize mistakes;

☐ has trouble moving from one idea to the next one;

☐ delays verbal responses;

☐ takes longer on reasoning tasks;

☐ has difficulty with abstractions; needs concrete demonstration;

☐ has trouble following oral information;

☐ has difficulty solving problems;

☐ is unable to transfer or generalize skills or integrate information;

☐ has difficulty drawing conclusions, making inferences, dealing with abstractions, seeing the whole.

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  • The individual:

☐ has problems managing the details of daily life; q has trouble organizing;

☐ experiences difficulty prioritizing;

☐ has problems identifying the next step;

☐ manifests inconsistent performance;

☐ jumps from topic/idea to topic/idea;

☐ shows poor organization of concepts and tasks (including sequencing, prioritizing, grouping or categorizing, generalizing, grasping similarities between items, relating parts to the whole);

☐ has difficulty with maps, graphs, and charts;

☐ has trouble following multiple directions, especially in a prescribed sequence;

☐ complains of getting lost easily/disoriented easily;

☐ arrives very early or very late;

☐ has difficulty spacing assignment on a page (e.g., crowding math problems on a page);

☐ has difficulty telling time;

☐ has problems adjusting to change.