Learning disabilities: What we know, don't know and think we know

A new report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) examines the impact that learning and attention issues have on millions of children and young adults in the U.S. The State of Learning Disabilities looks at how these individuals fare in school and beyond and provides resources for parents, teachers and employers to better understand and address their needs.

According to the report, 5 percent of children in public school have been identified as having a disability that impedes academic progress. An additional 15 percent or more of students are thought to have "unidentified and unaddressed learning and attention issues."

Inaccurate information and misperceptions, the report finds, are hindering efforts to provide much-needed support for many children with learning disabilities (LD).

"Stigma, underachievement and misunderstanding of LD continue to be stubborn barriers for parents and children to overcome," says James H. Wendorf, Executive Director of the NCLD. "The data in this 2014 report reveal that, left unaddressed, as many as 60 million individuals risk being left behind, burdened by low self-esteem, subjected to low expectations, and diminished in their ability to pursue their dreams."

The statistics are alarming:

• One in two students with LD experiences a suspension or expulsion from school;

• Students with LD earn lower grades and experience higher rates of course failure in high school than students without LD; and

• One in two young adults with LD (55 percent) reported having some type of involvement with the criminal justice system within 8 years of leaving high school.

I recently spoke with Dr. Sheldon H. Horowitz, Director of LD Resources at the NCLD. Dr. Horowitz also answered my questions via email. Here are excerpts from our conversation. 

What do you want parents to know about the new report?

Statistics, percentages, graphs and charts can be intimidating. With this report, we did our best to be "parent friendly." We want parents to bring data from the report to their child's school and ask questions about how well students with LD are faring in reading and math.

We also want parents to learn about postsecondary transition and how they can help their child avoid being underprepared for college, job training or employment. In short, we want our data to be their data so that they can become confident and effective advocates for their child and other children.

What do you want policy makers to know?

Protection and entitlements for children with LD are important, but they're just a starting point. The ESEA [Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965], long overdue for reauthorization, requires schools to meet rigorous standards for educational content and student achievement. For kids with LD, that means making sure they're not sidetracked from what should be a path to a high school diploma.

What should the general public know?

Almost everyone seems to know something about LD, but it's not always accurate. Often, the misconceptions are outrageous. LD is the result of laziness? Of watching too much television? Of the home environment? The purpose of our report is to get the facts straight so that myths around individuals with LD—that they are unable to learn or compete in the job market—are not perpetuated.

With implementation of the Common Core Standards in states across the country, what concerns/hopes do you have for children with LD?

The Common Core is going to be good for all kids, including those with LD. It raises academic expectations—and why not? Children with LD are bright kids whose struggles are unexpected and unexplained. If we get the assessment piece [of the Common Core] right, it will showcase the richness of knowledge that children with and without disabilities have.

Still, there are huge challenges ahead. Educators who specialize in LD and those who do not must work collaboratively, and schools must provide professional development that ensures the delivery of the highest quality instruction and mentoring. Parents must work with educators to support their child's intellectual, social and emotional development.

What additional research is needed in the field of learning disabilities?

There is so much we still don't know. Why do so many kids with LD leave school before graduating? Why do a disturbingly high number of young adults with LD have dealings with the criminal justice system? Why does disclosure of a learning disability outside of school—on the job and in the community—carry such a powerful stigma?

Some of our greatest thinkers, including Thomas Alva Edison, Chuck Close and David Boies, overcame dyslexia. How is it that dyslexia can also be a "gift"?

First, let me say that these individuals did not overcome dyslexia. Rather, they learned to live with it in ways that did not diminish their energy, hopefulness, self-confidence, drive, thoughtfulness and creativity. As far as referring to dyslexia as a gift, it may well be that some individuals with LD have unique strengths that appear to emanate from their area of weakness, or "difference." Consider, for example, a radiologist who, as an adult, remains a slow and inaccurate reader of words, but who can skillfully read an X-ray, an MRI or a CT scan. He or she may notice patterns that would likely elude others who only focus on isolated details.

What role might technology play in helping students with LD?

Technology can be empowering. It can distracting. It can be accommodating. It can be a nuisance. Whatever the case, technology that supports children with learning and attention issues can be lifesaving. It can help a child demonstrate what he or she knows rather than how the disability interferes with learning. It can help provide instruction in ways that meet a child's need for multiple representations of content. It can allow a child to interact with content in fun and personalized ways. But technology is not a panacea. What it can't do is make a child want to learn or replace the role of a caring, insightful adult.

What support is available for parents who are coping with a child's learning disability?

There is on-the-ground support that addresses everything from structuring homework time and making friends to teaching social cues. The important thing to keep in mind is that resources don't just target children. Our report shares some fascinating survey results, helping us to see that parents can be thought of as belonging to any of three groups: those who struggle to accept their child's learning issues, those who are conflicted about how to deal with those issues, and those who are optimistic about their ability to parent despite a child's LD. Help is available for all of these parents.