Learning Disorder/Learning Disability: What’s the Difference?
By Allen Stock, LP, LDA Program Manager
The above terms are commonly used synonymously. When reviewing literature or speaking to an education or mental health professional, the use of these terms can lead to confusion among parents and professionals regarding what is the learning issue, as well as what may be the most appropriate intervention. Knowing the differences in the terms that describe learning problems can help clarify what, and when, the proper intervention should be initiated. I have often read psychological reports or learning assessments that misuse, misstate or combine the two terms.
The term “learning disorder” describes a condition as it relates to the diagnostic criteria used in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual. The DSM is used by medical and mental health professionals as a guide to diagnose mental health disorders, including those that impact learning. There are three primary types of learning disorders: reading, writing or math. Reading disorders are often referred to as dyslexia; math disorders as dyscalculia, and writing disorders as dysgraphia.
The DSM criteria used to diagnose these learning disorders states: “the individual’s achievement, as measured by individually administered standardized tests, is substantially below that expected given the person’s chronological age, measured intelligence, and age-appropriate education AND the disturbance in criteria significantly interferes with academic achievement or activities of daily living AND if a sensory deficit is present, the difficulties are in excess of those usually associated with it.” The mental health clinician (typically a licensed psychologist) who is evaluating the individual is given latitude to determine if the level of impairment caused by the condition crosses the threshold describe din the diagnostic criteria.
The term “learning disability” is used primarily within the education system and is specified in the 1973 federal legislation that stated individuals could not be discriminated against if they had a “disability” of any kind, including physical, behavioral, learning, etc. Future legislation went further in detailing the specifics of what constituted a “learning disability.” The criteria now used by most public schools to determine if a student has a learning disability, and thus eligible for special education services, including an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) are as follows:
(1) The student must have average intelligence or higher, and
(2) A processing problem with receiving, processing, storing or producing of information that occurs across the lifespan, and
(3) Statistically significant difference of -1.75 or greater between the person’s achievement and ability, and
(4) These significant difficulties cannot be primarily due to visual, hearing or physical impairment, mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance, or to environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage.
If the individual’s academic delay isn’t significant enough, he or she will not qualify for an IEP. However, the academic delay may be significant enough to warrant a clinical diagnosis (a learning disorder!) that would indicate the individual does have a problem learning that requires intervention. In such cases, the student may then be eligible for what’s termed a “504 plan” (referring to Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act). With a clinical diagnosis in hand, the student may then receive “reasonable accommodations” such as being given more time to complete assignments or tests, using a note taker, taking tests in a private room, etc.
One problem with the learning disability criteria is that school-based intervention will not occur until the student falls further behind his or her same-age peers. The notion of waiting until the problem gets worse puts students, parents and educators in a box; meaning the school isn’t legally obligated to provide an IEP until the student c rosses the threshold identified by the stated “statistically significant difference of -1.75” in the third criteria, but the student is in need of an intervention to mitigate the chances that they will fall further behind in the particular subject area. In general, the -1.75 number equates to an approximate two-grade equivalent academic delay in the particular subject area (reading, writing or math). The actual academic delay can vary depending on the student’s current actual grade level as well as their level of intelligence.
By the time a student is behind their peers to such a significant degree to qualify for an IEP, the intervention provided within the confines of special education services typically isn’t intensive enough to resolve the academic skill gap represented by the -1.75 discrepancy.
Response to Intervention: RTI
As a result of the above-described dilemma, the most recent revision of the federal legislation governing special education required states to develop an alternative method of establishing eligibility for those services. In Minnesota, the legislature has permitted school districts that receive government funds to choose whether to adopt the Response to Intervention, or RTI model, in lieu of the “discrepancy model” in the hopes of identifying and reaching struggling students earlier.
Yet the RIT model has its own challenges. Some schools in Minnesota are electing to make the switch, some are not, and some are attempting to implement a “hybrid’ model. Some states have mandated school districts to use only the RTI model. Since the RTI model is relatively new to public school districts, its effectiveness has yet to be fully measured.
LDA Minnesota offers a variety of workshops on this and other topics regarding learning disorders and disabilities. To find out more, visit www.ldaminnesota.org.