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Learning Disabilities (LD)

Several definitions of Learning Disabilities exist. The definition most often used in higher education is that of the U.S. Department of Education, Rehabilitation Services Administration. This definition reads as follows:

A specific learning disability is a disorder in one or more of the central nervous system processes involved in perceiving, understanding, and/or using concepts through verbal (spoken or written) language or nonverbal means. This disorder manifests itself with a deficit in one or more of the following areas: attention, reasoning, processing, memory, communication, reading, writing, spelling, calculation, coordination, social competence, and emotional maturity.

Most definitions of learning disabilities conclude that individuals with this disability have:

  • average to superior intelligence;
  • a chronic disorder of neurological origin which causes difficulty in receiving, processing, integrating, and/or expressing information;
  • a significant discrepancy between achievement and intellectual capacity in one or more areas that did not primarily result from inadequate sensory activity; environmental, economic, or academic disadvantage; emotional disturbance; or mental retardation.

Often people assume that students with learning disabilities are unmotivated and unintelligent. Many question whether these students can succeed in college. Students with learning disabilities are not intellectually limited. They have the potential to succeed in higher education.

Some of the terms referring to disorders included under the umbrella term Specific Learning Disabilities are: Reading Disorder, Disorder of Written Expression, Math Disorder, and Learning Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.

Challenges for Students with Learning Disabilities

College students with learning disabilities may demonstrate one or more of the following characteristic problems and the form may be mild, moderate, or severe.

Study Skills:

  • Inability to change from one task to another
  • Difficulty organizing notes and other materials
  • Difficulty completing tests and in-class assignments without additional time

Oral Language:

  • Difficulty expressing ideas the person seems to understand
  • Difficulty concentrating on or understanding spoken language
  • Poor vocabulary, difficulty with word retrieval

Auditory processing skills:

  • Problems with auditory memory
  • Difficulty hearing small differences between words or speech sounds
  • Difficulty learning a foreign language


  • Difficulty reading new words
  • Slow reading rate – takes longer to read a test and other in-class assignments
  • Poor comprehension and retention of material read


  • Problems in organization and sequencing of ideas
  • Poor sentence structure
  • Incorrect grammar
  • Frequent and inconsistent spelling errors
  • Difficulty taking notes
  • Poor letter formation, spacing, capitalization and punctuation
  • Inadequate strategies for monitoring written work


  • Difficulty with basic math operations
  • Difficulty with aligning problems, number reversals, confusion of symbols
  • Poor strategies for monitoring errors
  • Difficulty with reasoning
  • Difficulty reading and comprehending word problems

For more information please see Working with Students with Learning Disabilities.