The Nature of Learning Disabilities: Critical Elements of Diagnosis and Classification

The Nature of Learning Disabilities: Critical Elements of Diagnosis and Classification

The Nature of Learning Disabilities: Critical Elements of Diagnosis and Classification

The Nature of Learning Disabilities: Critical Elements of Diagnosis and Classification


The category of learning disabilities continues to be among the most contentious in special education. Much of the debate and dissent emanates from a lack of understanding about its basic nature. The failure to evolve a comprehensive and unified perspective about the nature of learning disabilities has resulted in the concept being lost. The loss is best illustrated through the failure to answer this seemingly simple question: What is a learning disability?

Using historical, empirical, theoretical, conceptual, and philosophical analyses, this volume explores a number of problems and issues facing the field of learning disabilities. The chapters cover historical influences, definitional problems, primary characteristics, assessment practices, theoretical development, major themes, research and measurement models, and long-term outcomes. The goal is to explicate the nature of learning disabilities by analyzing what it was supposed to be, what it has become, and what it might be. A predominant theme running through this text is the necessity for the field of learning disabilities to regain integrity by recapturing its essence.


It has been some 30 years since the term learning disabilities was formally recognized as a category of special education. The goal was to organize, under a single classification, problems that were previously identified by their primary symptoms, such as dyslexia, minimal brain dysfunction, or aphasia. Has that goal been achieved? In terms of the sheer number of students served, yes: The field of learning disabilities has witnessed unprecedented growth and is clearly the largest area of special education. The numbers, however, hide some disconcerting facts: Learning disabilities (LD) remains among the most poorly understood categories of special education and, consequently, one open to widely varying interpretations. Those varying interpretations are reflected in a very basic problem: the inability to answer the question, "What is LD?"

The problems faced by the LD field are not new. The late Bill Cruickshank, pioneer and astute observer of the field, recognized problems from the onset:

The field of learning disabilities is today a complex, confused conglomerate of ideas and professional personnel. . . . It cannot continue as it has in the past decade without the expectancy of failure and without bringing down on the heads of children professional frustrations, political hostility, and parental antagonism (Cruickshank, 1972, p. 5)

The status of learning disabilities in the public schools of this nation is one of educational catastrophe. . . . We do not have all the research needed in this area, but we have enough to turn around the field of education for children with specific learning disabilities from a position of dyads to one of logic and satisfaction to the professional educator and parent-consumer alike. (Cruickshank, 1977, p. 64)

If [the] issues can be approached rationally and solutions achieved, the future of learning disabilities is indeed bright. If the present contentious situation is permitted to continue, and if inadequate educational programs are allowed to last, or indeed even to increase in number through the so-called normalization of education, then the future of the field of learning disabilities is headed for disaster. (Cruickshank, 1983, p. 197)

The LD field is not tranquil; discord and disharmony far outweigh consensus and concordance. This volume focuses on understanding why the LD field is . . .

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