What are Learning Disabilities?


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Two columns and five rows all containing the word “teapot” are shown. “Teapot” is written ten times with the letters jumbled, sometimes appearing backwards and upside down.
Figure 1. These written words show variations of the word “teapot” as written by individuals with dyslexia. Source: OpenStax Psychology 2e

What are Learning Disabilities? (OpenStax Psychology 2e)

Learning disabilities are cognitive disorders that affect different areas of cognition, particularly language or reading. It should be pointed out that learning disabilities are not the same thing as intellectual disabilities. Learning disabilities are considered specific neurological impairments rather than global intellectual or developmental disabilities. A person with a language disability has difficulty understanding or using spoken language, whereas someone with a reading disability, such as dyslexia, has difficulty processing what he or she is reading.

Often, learning disabilities are not recognized until a child reaches school age. One confounding aspect of learning disabilities is that they most often affect children with average to above-average intelligence. In other words, the disability is specific to a particular area and not a measure of overall intellectual ability. At the same time, learning disabilities tend to exhibit comorbidity with other disorders, like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Anywhere between 30–70% of individuals with diagnosed cases of ADHD also have some sort of learning disability (Riccio, Gonzales, & Hynd, 1994). Let’s take a look at three examples of common learning disabilities: dysgraphia, dyslexia, and dyscalculia.


Children with dysgraphia have a learning disability that results in a struggle to write legibly. The physical task of writing with a pen and paper is extremely challenging for the person. These children often have extreme difficulty putting their thoughts down on paper (Smits-Engelsman & Van Galen, 1997). This difficulty is inconsistent with a person’s IQ. That is, based on the child’s IQ and/or abilities in other areas, a child with dysgraphia should be able to write, but can’t. Children with dysgraphia may also have problems with spatial abilities.

Students with dysgraphia need academic accommodations to help them succeed in school. These accommodations can provide students with alternative assessment opportunities to demonstrate what they know (Barton, 2003). For example, a student with dysgraphia might be permitted to take an oral exam rather than a traditional paper-and-pencil test. Treatment is usually provided by an occupational therapist, although there is some question as to how effective such treatment is (Zwicker, 2005).


Dyslexia is the most common learning disability in children. An individual with dyslexia exhibits an inability to correctly process letters. The neurological mechanism for sound processing does not work properly in someone with dyslexia. As a result, dyslexic children may not understand sound-letter correspondence. A child with dyslexia may mix up letters within words and sentences—letter reversals, such as those shown in Figure 1, are a hallmark of this learning disability—or skip whole words while reading. A dyslexic child may have difficulty spelling words correctly while writing. Because of the disordered way that the brain processes letters and sounds, learning to read is a frustrating experience. Some dyslexic individuals cope by memorizing the shapes of most words, but they never actually learn to read (Berninger, 2008).


Dyscalculia is difficulty in learning or comprehending arithmetic. This learning disability is often first evident when children exhibit difficulty discerning how many objects are in a small group without counting them. Other symptoms may include struggling to memorize math facts, organize numbers, or fully differentiate between numerals, math symbols, and written numbers (such as “3” and “three”).


Spielman, R. M., Jenkins, W. J., & Lovett, M. D. (2020). Psychology 2e. OpenStax. Houston, Texas. Accessed for free at https://openstax.org/details/books/psychology-2e


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