LBS Practitioner Training

Professional development support for Literacy and Basic Skills educators in Ontario

3.1 Understanding Learning Disabilities

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About learning disabilities...

1. A person with a learning disability doesn’t get over it.
2. It doesn’t get better.
3. There is no cure.

These three statements put the spotlight on the first thing we need to understand when working with adults who have learning disabilities, i.e. a learning disability is a real disability.

It exists like any other disability. It is not the same thing as a learning difficulty; it is a disability, and that means something doesn’t work right.

LBS Instructors ask, “What do I really have to know and understand before I can be effective in working with adults who have learning disabilities?”

Before we can answer that question, we need to lay a little groundwork, so, in this section, we look at:

  • definitions of learning disabilities and the difference between learning disabilities, developmental disabilities, and ADHD;
  • what causes learning disabilities;
  • why there are so many LD learners in our classes;
  • how learning disabilities affect an adult’s daily life;
  • important messages for learners and instructors to keep in mind right from the start.


What is a learning disability?

There are many websites with really good information about learning disabilities. Visit these three links, and read their definitions.

1. Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario
2. Link to a page inside a document called the “Learning Disabilities Adaptations and Accommodations Guide, produced by the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Centre.
3. Link to the Homepage for the National Centre for Learning Disabilities website. Scroll down until you find the definition for learning disabilities.
4. If you are not connected to the Internet at the moment, read Official LD Definition excerpt from the Learning Disabilities Initiative report written by Donna Zener, developed for CESBA in 2003.

These online sites contain a lot of good information, don’t you think? We think you might want to bookmark them for future reference...

JOURNAL REFLECTIONS: What do you think?

Based on your readings so far, and especially the definitions of learning disabilities, what new information do you have that you think is important to your understanding and work with LD learners?

In shaping your own working definition of learning disabilities, it is important to be clear in your mind about what a learning disability is not.

A learning disability is not:

Are learning disabilities the same as…?

It can be confusing when you come across something that looks to you like a learning disability, but is, in fact, not one - i.e. other disabilities, disorders and behaviours. It’s also confusing when people attach different names to things and different meanings to the terms that we use. It raises questions:

“What about ADD or ADHD? Do learners who have ADHD have LD too? Do you work with ADHD learners and LD learners in the same way?”

Research tells us that 60-80% of people who have ADHD (with or without hyperactivity) may also have a learning disability, but a learning disability (LD) is not the same thing as ADHD.

"We have some learners in our program with developmental disabilities. Is a developmental disability another kind of learning disability only worse? Are DD learners really people who have learning disabilities but in every area?

Developmental disabilities are very different from learning disabilities. DD is an issue of capacity whereas LD is an information processing issue in one particular area. While LD learners have an IQ that is, at the very least, in the normal range or higher, DD learners do not. Approaches to learning will be different, and expected outcomes may be very different.

More on those two questions:

Explore the next two links, and think about how you would differentiate:

  • learning disabilities (LD),
  • developmental disabilities (DD),
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

1. Developmental Disabilities vs Learning Disabilities
2. DD LD and ADD

Go to Muddy Waters, and read about other things that can be easily confused with learning disabilities.


When adults discover that a learning disability might be the root cause of their many learning problems, they often ask these kinds of questions:

  • “Where do learning disabilities come from?"
  • "How did I get it?"
  • "Was it something I did?"
  • "Is it my fault?”
  • "Does this mean I am retarded (learner's word  or stupid?"

Here is some background information that will help you with the answers they need to hear.

Where do learning disabilities come from?

Many experts in the field explain learning disabilities as a neurological "mis-wiring" in the brain where certain usual pathways in the central nervous system are not connected up or have been damaged in some way. As a result, these usual pathways cannot be used for processing information in the normal way. The type and nature of the learning disability that results, depends on where in the brain these "mis-wirings" have occurred and how badly the connections have been damaged.

The National Centre for Learning Disabilities gives some possible explanations for how this kind of damage can happen.

"Learning disabilities are presumed to be disorders of the central nervous system, and a variety of factors may contribute to their occurrence. Learning disabilities may be due to:

  • Heredity. Learning disabilities tend to run in families. It is not unusual to discover that people with learning disabilities come from families in which other family members have reported similar difficulties.
  • Problems during pregnancy and childbirth. Learning disabilities may be caused by illness or injury during or before birth. Learning disabilities may also be caused by the use of drugs and alcohol during pregnancy, RH incompatibility with the mother (if untreated), premature or prolonged labour, lack of oxygen, or low weight at birth.
  • Incidents after birth. Head injuries, nutritional deprivation, poisonous substances, (e.g., lead), and child abuse can contribute to learning disabilities.

Often there does not appear to be any specific cause for learning disabilities.”

Why so many adults with learning disabilities in LBS?

As noted earlier, research tells us that:

  • 10% of of the population probably have a learning disability;
  • 30-60% of adults who attend literacy classes likely have a learning disability.

The National Centre for Learning Disabilities describes what happens when children with learning disabilities do not get the help they need and continue into adulthood with severe limitations in reading, writing and math.

“School failure and illiteracy perpetuate a vicious downward cycle of frustration and despair.

35 percent of students with learning disabilities do not finish high school. This percentage only includes those students already identified as learning disabled. (National Longitudinal Transition Study, Wagner 1992).

62 percent of students with learning disabilities are not fully employed one year after graduating from high school. (Wagner 1992).

60 percent of adults with severe literacy problems are found to have undetected or untreated learning disabilities. (National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Centre, 1994


Learning disabilities and substance abuse are the most frequently cited impairments that inhibit a social service’s client's ability to gain and retain employment and fiscal independence. (Functional Impairments of Clients, Office of the Inspector General, 1992)”


How does a learning disability affect an adult’s life?

Contrary to what was once thought, children do not outgrow learning disabilities as they grow older. In most cases, however, as people mature, they find ways to adapt. They lead “normal” lives and have “normal” families; they may be highly successful at work and may exhibit outstanding intellectual capacity. These outward signs of success, however, do not mean that the person is no longer troubled by the learning disability of his childhood. On the contrary, the learning disability usually continues to be a daily, active, and persistent cause of concern that creates recurring challenges at work, at school, and in social relationships
People who have not been so successful in working around their disability tend to experience repeated failure in various aspects of their lives. Often, these are the people who come to programs such as ours for help.

Choose one of the following three links, and read about the specific effects that a learning disability can have in an adult’s life.

1.  LD Impact - a report, from the National Centre for Adult Learning and Learning Disabilities, details how learning disabilities affect adult learners in five areas.

2. Have You Ever? - one adult’s first-hand account of life with a learning disability.

3.  Effects of learning disabilities on the lives of adults. Take note of the positive effects that LD can produce as well as the negative impact. This piece is taken from “Bridges to Practice: A Research-based Guide for Literacy Practitioners Serving Adults with Learning Disabilities”. Scroll down to find the charts.

Important messages for learners:

People react in different ways when they hear about the possibility of a learning disability, but it does not necessarily have to be an overwhelmingly negative experience. Some adults have said that they felt greatly relieved to find out at last that they were not “just crazy, lazy or stupid”. It was reassuring for them to know that there was a logical explanation and reason behind their difficulties. Others, however, may react with some alarm.

Practitioners can help to alleviate anxiety and set to rest many unspoken fears by clearly communicating these four important messages:

  1. Having a learning disability is not your fault. You didn’t do anything to cause this. You didn’t do anything wrong.
  2. Having a learning disability doesn’t mean that you are “retarded” (the learner’s word), or stupid and can’t learn anything.
  3. A learning disability does mean that you have at least normal and possibly above-normal, intelligence.
  4. It also means that you learn things in ways that are different from how other people learn.

It's good to be aware that many learners go through the five stages of the grief process as they come to grips with the possibility of a learning disability. Go to LD Grief to see what happens for the learner at each stage and what instructors can do to offer appropriate support.

Instructors who are new to working with LD learners need to keep the following messages in mind. (These are passed along to you from your fellow cohorts in LBS.)

  • There is no quick fix. The hardest part, the most time-consuming part, but the most important part, is getting to know the learner well.
  • Be flexible and patient, and be willing to keep trying out different strategies with individual learners until you find the ones that are successful.
  • Help them learn how to give you feedback on the various strategies you use.
  • Learning disabilities come in many shapes and forms. The characteristics that your LD learners exhibit are likely all different and often inconsistent. Take your time as you try to understand what you are looking at. It pays off.
  • Expect delays and inconsistencies all along the way. Learning disabilities show up more on some days than on others, and what works one day may not be as successful on another. Don’t let that get to you.
  • Effective teaching strategies for working with learning disabilities are all examples of good teaching methodology that you can use with all learners

Naturally, there are pitfalls to avoid as you work with adults who have learning disabilities. Here are the two most common ones.  Be sure to read them carefully to avoid these mistakes.

Two BIG mistakes:

1. “If I just try harder, maybe I can fix it”. Instructors who think this show that they really do not have a clear understanding of the nature of learning disabilities. They believe if they were really good teachers they would be able to find a solution and then the learner would be able to work away like everybody else.  Go to I Can FIx It for more on this discussion.

2. Remediation or accommodation? Remediation is about going back and filling in all the gaps in the learner’s skills and knowledge so that the learner will get caught up; accommodation is about finding the right strategies that will open doors to allow the learner to move ahead and do something on her own, which previously she could not. Experts recommend that, although there are huge gaps in skills and knowledge for adults with learning disabilities, remediation should not necessarily be the first priority. They say gaps will eventually take care of themselves; what we do need to do is spend more time and attention on the hunt for strategies that will allow each LD learner to learn.

JOURNAL REFLECTIONS: What do you think?

Did any of the starting point messages for new instructors resonate with you in some way? Why do you think that was so?  Did either of the “Two BIG Mistakes” elicit feelings of defensiveness or resistance? If so, what do you think that was about?

Visit Opening Doors to see how one learner found an accommodation that made a difference.

Learning Disabilities

Identifying Possible Learning Disabilities

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