Online Degrees Blog What is a learning dis/ability?

What is a learning dis/ability?

24 June
Teacher helping a smiling student learn the alphabet.

If you’re interested in special education, you may be asking yourself, “What is a learning dis/ability?” According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA), “learning dis/abilities alter brain functioning in a manner which affects one or more cognitive processes related to learning.”1 Learning dis/abilities can affect how students learn basic skills in reading, writing, and math. Higher-level skills can also be affected by learning dis/abilities including time planning and organization, abstract reasoning, attention, and long or short-term memory.

Students with learning dis/abilities learn in different ways from the general population and may require different methods of learning in order to “understand, organize, and output” the same educational information as students without dis/abilities.2

Read on to learn more about what a learning dis/ability is, the types of learning dis/abilities that exist, which classroom methods are most effective to help all learners succeed, and how learning dis/abilities differ from autism.

Learning Dis/abilities: By The Numbers

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which collects and analyzes education data from across the country, estimates 14% of our national public school students—approximately seven million students—are students with a Dis/ability.3 Of these students, the most common type of dis/ability is a specific learning dis/ability (SLD).

Specific learning dis/abilities are defined as “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations.”4 Students with learning dis/abilities may see differences in their potential versus their performance.

According to a Pew Research Center study from 2017-18:

  • 34% of students with dis/ability had a specific learning dis/ability
  • 20% had a speech or language impairment
  • 14% had an acute or chronic health problem that adversely affected educational performance3

Specific learning dis/abilities include:

  • Perceptual dis/abilities
  • Brain injury
  • Minimal brain dysfunction
  • Dyslexia
  • Developmental aphasia4

It is important to note that specific learning dis/abilities are not a result of motivation, caregiving, or intelligence levels and do not include learning difficulties that are caused by:

  • Visual, hearing, or motor dis/abilities
  • Intellectual dis/ability
  • Serious emotional dis/ability
  • Cultural factors
  • Environmental or economic resource availability
  • Developing language proficiency4

Types of Learning dis/abilities

Learning dis/abilities is a term that encompasses a number of dis/abilities including:


Dyscalculia affects a person's ability to do basic math including adding, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Students with this learning dis/ability generally take more time to work with numbers, may have a greater tendency to make calculation and estimation mistakes, and may feel greater anxiety working with numbers. Worded math problems can pose particular difficulty for students with dyscalculia. Early intervention is essential as students with this dis/ability can experience career and personal finance management issues during their lifetimes. Helpful pedagogical solutions include more time on tests, the allowance of calculators for standard exams, and the early acknowledgment of this dis/ability to help students succeed. 11% of those with dyscalculia also have ADHD, Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder.5


Dysgraphia affects a person’s fine motor skills and their ability to produce writing including typing, spelling, and handwriting. People with this learning dis/ability can find that they struggle with ideas and how to convey them. Dysgraphia can lead to students taking longer to write. While dysgraphia is no longer considered a learning “disorder” and is not listed as a learning dis/ability under the federal lDEA act, it does still pose challenges to certain students.

Children with dysgraphia can work with physical and occupational therapists to help them improve their fine motor skills and with a physical therapist to help them improve their gross motor skills and therefore their ability to write.6 Certain classroom accommodations can also be made to help students with this dis/ability including providing pencil grips, creating handouts for work lessons (to reduce the amount of handwriting needed in class), and passing out graph paper for math work.7


Dyslexia hinders a person’s ability to recognize words and is a neurobiological learning disorder, not an issue that is due to vision problems. This learning dis/ability can affect students differently at different ages, so testing assessments should be done at various grade levels to help track student progress and determine where they need special education assistance. There are a number of specialists that can help students with dyslexia including reading specialists, speech-language pathologists, and special education teachers.8 One helpful educational approach for dyslexia is multisensory instruction, where a student engages more than one sense at a time to help learn academic material.9

Oral/Written Language Disorder and Specific Reading Comprehension Deficit

Students with Oral/Written Language Disorder and Specific Reading Comprehension Deficit (S-RCD) have difficulty expressing and understanding language in both written and oral form because of deficits in their syntactic and semantic processing.10 Children with S-RCD can read words out loud without trouble but often struggle to grasp the meaning of what they have just read. Diagnostic reading tests, language analyses, as well as cognitive tests, observation, and analyses of student work can help make the proper determination and special education assistance that should be employed in the classroom for students with this learning dis/ability.11

Non-Verbal Learning dis/abilities (NVLD or NLD)

NVLD has been described as the “most overlooked, misunderstood, and under-diagnosed learning dis/ability.”12 This dis/ability has social, emotional, academic, and physical challenges but is often overlooked because it is difficult to identify and can be misdiagnosed as Asperger’s disorder (AD). Individuals with NVLD are highly verbal. Where they struggle is in nonverbal areas, especially in the area of reading non-verbal cues, which are a critical component of human communication. Individuals with NVLD tend to take words at face value and therefore interpret things literally. Efforts are underway by the NVLD Project to have this learning dis/ability added to the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM) to increase the chances for more accurate diagnosis and special education assistance.

How to Differentiate A Learning dis/ability from Autism

While approximately 30% of our students with a learning dis/ability, students with autism account for 10% of our nation’s school children with dis/abilities in 2017-18, up from 1.5% a decade prior.3

Autism exists along a spectrum and is defined as “a neurodevelopmental disorder whose primary symptoms are persistent deficits in social communication and interaction and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities,” whereas a learning dis/ability is defined as having “a substantial difficulty in any number of academic areas.”13

Autism presents itself differently from learning dis/abilities. Those with autism often approach communication and social interactions differently. For example, a student with autism may exhibit academic excellence but may have difficulty socializing with classmates. In contrast, a student with a learning dis/ability may struggle with reading and writing but can express themselves easily, has many socialization skills, and is a popular student at school.

It can be easy to confuse these two dis/abilities since both can cause:

  • Sensory processing difficulties
  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Developing social skills10

Because there are many similarities surrounding these two conditions, it is important for educators to thoroughly evaluate students to properly identify the dis/ability and create appropriate strategies and interventions to help each student based on the findings.

Gain Advanced Special Education Skills To Help Students With Learning dis/abilities

Are you ready to learn new ways to help students with learning dis/abilities or with autism? We encourage you to join an online master’s-level program at top-ranked The University of Kansas School of Education and Human Sciences.

The University of Kansas is a long-time leader in special education with a legacy of classroom and career success. In 2022, U.S. News & World Report ranks KU #1 in Best Online Master’s in Special Education Programs in the nation.

Learn more about the KU Department of Special Education’s online graduate programs in Secondary Special Education and Transition, High Incidence dis/abilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder, or Leadership in Special and Inclusive Education to accelerate your career and classroom impact.

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