Identifying a Learning Disability: The First Steps

Updated: May 15, 2019
Find out how to spot disabilities and what to do next.
Table of contents

Identifying a Learning Disability: The First Steps

As we pass through life, we excel in some areas, and in others, we falter. Recognizing and acknowledging the latter assures us growth. For many individuals, weaknesses lie in athletic, musical, or artistic realms. It is often possible for a person to adapt and develop with those weaknesses unnoticed. Academic deficits, however, are more difficult to escape and overcome.

In 1975, Public Law 94-142 was enacted, a first step in recognizing and providing educational rights to individuals with disabilities. Since that time, special education programs and services have continued to evolve, and as research continues, techniques to assist individuals with learning disabilities in overcoming their differences will also continue to emerge.

What is a learning disability?

The first step in overcoming a disability is identifying it. Identifying students with learning differences can vary by state, although most processes begin with a Student Study Team. This team receives "at-risk" student referrals from classroom teachers, and then discusses potential modifications or adaptations the teacher can implement to increase the child's academic success. Should these modifications fail, the team may suggest a referral for a special education assessment. Parents are then presented with a consent form containing various standardized tests that measure ability, achievement, and processing competencies.

A learning disability is identified when a severe discrepancy exists between intellectual ability and achievement in one or more of the following areas:

  • Oral Expression
  • Listening Comprehension
  • Written Expression
  • Basic Reading Skills
  • Reading Comprehension
  • Mathematical Calculation
  • Mathematics Reasoning.

"The discrepancy (must be) due to a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes and ... not the result of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantages. The discrepancy (must) not be (correctable) through other regular or categorical services within the regular instructional program." (California Education Code, 56337.a-c, 1995).

In simpler terms, children with learning disabilities exhibit a "statistically significant," or 20-point gap, between their intelligence (ability) and at least one area of their academic testing (achievement). They must also exhibit difficulty processing information through one or more modes (i.e., visually, auditory). When this happens, the individual is eligible for special education services, services that vary across grade levels and the country.

How we learn

Every individual learns in different ways: visually (seeing it), auditorily (hearing it), kinesthetically (doing it), or a combination of the three. When a child is identified as having a learning disability, teachers and parents can introduce strategies that take advantage of stronger areas while accommodating weaker areas. Learning disabilities are not "curable," nor are they terminal. They are obstacles in our lives that we can learn to overcome.