Identification of Characteristics of Specific Learning Disabilities as a Critical Component in the Vocational Rehabilitation Process

Article excerpt

This paper discusses an identification process which vocational rehabilitation counselors can use to justify eligibility and determine severe handicap for persons with specific learning disabilities (SLD). Various aspects of identification are presented including definition, eligibility, characteristics, observation, and severe handicap determination. The definition proposed by Rehabilitation Services Administration (1985) and the criteria established in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - Revised (1987) are explored to determine their implications for the identification process. The common SLD characteristics identified in the definition are discussed in relation to identifying functional limitations, justifying eligibility, and severe handicap determination. A screening device and a more comprehensive behavior checklist, the SLD Characteristic Checklist (Dowdy, 1990), are described. These resources can be used by counselors during the intake interview or completed by parents or other professionals familiar with the client. Suggestions for future research and study are also included.

Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Services became available to eligible persons with primary disabilities of specific learning disabilities (SLD) in 1981. Since that time learning disabilities has become the fastest growing disability group in the federal agency, Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), increasing from 1.3% of the total clients rehabilitated in 1983 to 4.9% of those rehabilitated in 1988 (L.I. Mars, Personal Communication, April 9, 1990; Mars, 1986). According to data from RSA, cases of 29,035 persons with SLD were closed in 1988 and of these 10,733 were closed in status 26, rehabilitated. Cases which were closed and not rehabilitated amounted to 6,176 (21.3%); 11,749 were not accepted after they applied (40.5%) and an additional 377 (1.3%) were not accepted for services after receiving extended evaluation.

A total of 63.1% of those who applied either failed to be accepted as a client or were not effectively rehabilitated. Although this data is similar to all VR applicants and clients, the percentage of persons with specific learning disabilities served by VR is significantly smaller than those receiving special education services. The 12th Annual Report to Congress (U.S. Dept of Ed., 1990) stated that in 1988-89, 47.7% of the handicapped students receiving special education services were learning disabled (LD). While all special education students with LD are not expected to become VR clients, the implementation of improved techniques for identification of the functional limitations of persons with specific learning disabilities could significantly effect the quantity and effectiveness of VR services to this population. This article will address identification procedures which VR counselors may use to improve services for persons with a learning disability.

Identification Variables

The process for identification of specific learning disabilities and the associated functional capacities and limitations is determined by several variables. Following is a discussion of the significant variables including the SLD definition, eligibility factors, characteristics of SLD, assessment, and determination of severe handicap.


A definition of any disability provides parameters for discussing the condition and should offer a basis for the identification process. While many definitions of LD have been suggested, it seems prudent to study the operational definition distributed to the State Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies by the Rehabilitation Services Administration in the RSA Program Policy Directive, RSA-PPD-85-7/ dated March 5, 1985.

A specific learning disability is a disorder in one or more of the central nervous system processes involved in perceiving, understanding, and/or using concepts through verbal (spoken or written) language or nonverbal means. …