Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Definitions of Learning Disabilities in Canadian Provinces and Territories

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Definitions of Learning Disabilities in Canadian Provinces and Territories

Article excerpt

Canadian definitions of learning disabilities (LD) traditionally have varied interprovincially, and the authors have compiled current provincial and territorial policy information related to LD. Special education definitions of LD are summarized, and an overview of funding mechanisms for special education services for students with LD is provided. In the majority of provincial and territorial policies, the concept of LD as a discrepancy between intelligence test scores and achievement has been retained from previous policies as a defining feature. Seven provinces have adopted either the official version or part of the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (2002) LD definition, which characterises LD as a cognitive processing disorder or condition with processing deficits. The use of IQ scores and the vague conceptualization of processing disorder are major difficulties with the current definitions. These findings of policy definitions of LD with more detailed identification criteria contrast with current noncategorical provincial funding mechanisms for learning disabled students.

Keywords: learning disabilities, policy, processing deficit, IQ-achievement discrepancy

The variability in Canadian educational policy definitions of learning disabilities (LD) is not unique to Canada, nor is it a recent phenomenon. The definition of specific LD and related classification criteria have been debated since their inception in the mid1960s (Reschly, Hosp, & Schmied, 2003).1 Diagnostic definitions and guidelines available to U.S. and Canadian professionals include the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (4th ed., text revision; DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association, 2000) and the World Health Organisation International Classification of Disease (ICD-IO).2 The core of DSM-IV-TR diagnostic criteria for LD is a discrepancy between intelligence and achievement, with achievement that is "substantially below [and] defined as a discrepancy of more than two standard deviations" (p. 49). This definition contrasts with the longstanding, overwhelming empirical objection to LD as being defined by a discrepancy between cognitive intelligence and academic achievement (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2002).3

In the United States, policy definitions and the process of LD identification historically have been highly politicized and heavily regulated. U.S. federal disability legislation delineates legal rights for individuals with learning disabilities (i.e., Federal Education of the Handicapped Act [EHA; 1975], Individuals With Disabilities Education Act [IDEA 1990-1991], IDEA 1997 [PL 107-15], and IDEA 2004-2005 [PL 108-446], and U.S. federal special education funding is conditional on state compliance with related federal regulations. The contradictions in U.S. federal policy are highlighted in a review by Reschly et al. (2003), which indicated that the majority of U.S. states define LD using different intellectual ability and achievement discrepancy formulas; consequently, reported rates for LD vary significantly from state to state. Although IDEA was recently amended to reflect more current understandings of LD (and the requirement of an intellectual-achievement discrepancy was removed from its criteria), interpretation of how LD state policies may operationalize LD is still under significant and heated debate.4 As noted by Kavale and Forness (2003), U.S. advocacy agencies have been extremely successful in their promotion of expanded definitions of LD such that students designated as learning disabled account for approximately 52% of all special education students, in excess of 2.5 million students.

The Canadian experience with the development and definition of LD has been and continues to be distinct from the U.S. experience. A historical account of LD definitions in Canadian research is available in Flynn (1992) and Klassen (2002), but a review of the general literature indicates a limited number of published articles on Canadian administrative or policy definitions of LD. …

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