Identifying the Learning Disabled
The term learning disabled (LD) means different things to different people. Formal definitions are often cumbersome and imprecise. Advocacy groups have several definitions, and many teachers have no real idea of what learning disability means (Bateman, 1992). In 1895 a Scottish ophthalmologist, James Hinshelwood, identified a condition he called congenital word blindness, which caused difficulty in learning to read (Jost, 1993). Word blindness has evolved into learning disability, a sort of catch-all "safety net" concept that includes all characteristics of children who have learning problems not tied to an obvious cause (Bateman, 1992). A semi-facetious way to identify such an individual is serial elimination, illustrated by Lavoe (1989). Of five students not succeeding academically, eliminate the one with a modality deficit (vision loss, hearing impairment, etc.), eliminate the one who is emotionally disturbed, eliminate the one who is mentally retarded, and eliminate the one who has not had the opportunity to learn. The remaining student is learning disabled.
More than thirty characteristics can be related to learning disability. Two of the most frequently listed are reversals of letters and numbers, and illegible handwriting. The LD student may be easily distracted, or might be so focused as to appear obsessed. S/he might be talented at dismantling and rebuilding motors and engines, but unable to turn in homework on time. S/he might be a gifted athlete or might be incredibly awkward. The LD student may have problems with memory, sequencing, or organizational skills. Some of the characteristics are easily seen in the classroom; others, such as excessive movement during sleep, are not. No LD student displays all of these characteristics. This broad spectrum of traits has contributed to a lack of precision in defining the term learning disabled.
What Does Learning Disabled Mean?
Federal guidelines define learning disability as a disorder in at least one of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding and using written or spoken language, manifested in impaired ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or calculate. Specifically excluded in the federal definition are mental retardation, visual and hearing impairments, and environmental, economic, and cultural disadvantages (Jost, 1993).
Most school districts use a working definition that identifies a student as learning disabled if there is a severe discrepancy between ability and school achievement (Bateman, 1992). There is no agreement about what constitutes a "severe" discrepancy, or how the discrepancy would be determined (Frankenberger & Fronzablio, 1993). For the classroom teacher, a student is learning disabled if the school's diagnostician says so.
How Can Learning Disabled Students be Identified?
Just as there are many definitions of learning disability, there are many ways of identifying who has a learning disability. To measure intelligence and achievement, many school districts administer a standardized IQ test, such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children - Revised and an achievement test, such as the Peabody Individual Achievement Test (McLeskey & Waldron, 1991). Assuming these tests actually measure what they purport to measure, the question when diagnosing learning disabilities is to determine what constitutes a "severe discrepancy" between a student's ability and achievement test scores (McLeskey & Waldron). Once the method is selected, the school district sets its guidelines for deciding how much of a discrepancy is severe. A difference of 18 points between ability and achievement is common, albeit arbitrary. For example, what happens to students who are obviously having academic problems, but whose discrepancy is only 16 points? Some districts will designate these "borderline" students as learning disabled to ensure that …