Lived Experiences of Adolescents with Learning Disabilities

By Rosetti, Christina W.; Henderson, Sheila J. | The Qualitative Report, June 17, 2013 | Go to article overview

Lived Experiences of Adolescents with Learning Disabilities


Rosetti, Christina W., Henderson, Sheila J., The Qualitative Report


In the United States, 4.8% of school enrolled children aged 3 to 21 years old were served during the 2010-2011 school year as young people with specific learning disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Digest of Education Statistics, National Center for Education Statistics, 2012). Adults with learning disabilities (LD) constitute the highest percentage of people with disabilities at secondary and postsecondary institutions (Gregg, 2009). These statistics are likely to be low estimates regarding the prevalence of LD in the total population due to controversy in how to define LD and should be considered broad estimates (Goldstein, 2011). Thus, the prevalence of LD in the total population is likely to be greater than what is reported here.

Historically, researchers have largely overlooked the personal accounts of children with LD (Kelly, 2007) in terms of what has appeared this far in the worldwide literature. Research that includes the voices of adolescents with LD has the potential to make a major contribution to the psychology and education literatures and to change perceptions about the potential of young people with LD across the world. The purpose of this study is to capture the lived experiences of adolescents with learning disabilities (LD) through individual interviews and data analysis inspired by Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009).

Learning Disabilities Defined

The definition and diagnosis of LD has long been a source of controversy (Ames, 1998). During the 1970s in the United States, Kirk and Elkins (1975) claimed that LD was ultimately operationalized as a reading disorder with lower intellectual functioning. However, the definition of LD established by the federal legislation was not intended to include an association with lower intellectual functioning. According to the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD) federal law states that the term LD refers to a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes in relation to understanding or using written and/or spoken language. The resulting effect is explained as difficulty in listening, concentrating, speaking, spelling, writing, or doing mathematics (Hall, Spruill, & Webster, 2002; Kirk & Elkin, 1975; NJCLD, 1981). Again according to federal law, a learning disability may be diagnosed when an individual's subscores on achievement and intellectual ability tests show discrepancies in at least one of several areas including math, reading, listening, written expression, basic reading skills, mathematical calculation, and mathematical reasoning (NJCLD, 1981). In this article, LD is defined as the presence of a significant difference in an individual's ability as compared to his or her performance in one or more specific areas resulting in a variety of difficulties.

The NJCLD (1981) proposed that people view learning disabilities as a complex and heterogeneous group of learning disorders, yet lack of agreement on the nature of learning disabilities has resulted in individuals with LD being thought of as a homogenous group requiring similar assessments and interventions. While the NJCLD endorses the notion that learning difficulties arise from a myriad of factors, they maintain that LD is the result of intrinsically different processes of attaining information due to the central nervous system. Recently, however, there has been a broadening in the understanding of LD as researchers and professionals begin to see it as more than just a neurologically based disorder. Some theorists have proposed that LD may be also the result of a complex interaction of individual, family, school, and sociological factors (Ames, 1998). This lack of a clear and common definition of LD is at the root of problems regarding further research, diagnosis, and treatment (Brueggemann, Kamphaus, & Dombrowski, 2008).

Fuchs, Fuchs, and Speece (2002) attributed controversy in assessment of LD to the increase in the number of children diagnosed with LD since the field's inception. …

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