Concept of Learning Disabilities

The notion of learning disabilities and the attendant terminology arose in the mid-1960s when a psychologist, Samuel Kirk, first used the term “learning disability.” Kirk used the term as a catchall phrase to describe a number of different problems affecting the ability of certain children to learn. He noted that these problems manifested themselves in children who were otherwise capable, but were underachieving. There was a variance between the child’s level of achievement and the child’s presumed capabilities. Kirk defined learning disabilities as “a retardation, disorder, or delayed development in one or more of the processes of speech, language, reading, spelling, writing, or arithmetic resulting from a possible cerebral dysfunction and not from mental retardation, sensory deprivation, or cultural or instructional factors” (Kirk, 1962:263).

This was a new concept, even though unexpected underachievement in otherwise capable children had been reported much earlier in association with dyslexia, word blindness, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia (Doris, 1993; Hallgren, 1950; Hinshelwood, 1917; Orton, 1925; Strauss and Werner, 1942). Parents, educators, and policy makers embraced the new term “learning disabilities” because it fulfilled a need to provide special education services to children whose failure to learn could not be explained by mental retardation, visual impairments, hearing impairments, or emotional disturbance. The new term represented a new category for describing children with learning impairments that were not attributable to obvious physical, emotional, or psychological shortcomings. There was no stigma attached because “Their difficulties in learning to read, write, and/or calculate occurred despite adequate intelligence, sensory integrity, healthy emotional development, and cultural and environmental advantage” (Lyon et al., 2001).

Prior to Kirk’s revelation, children with learning disabilities were simply not being served. The new concept catalyzed parents and educators to act. In 1969 these children were eligible for services with passage of the Learning Disabilities Act. Eligibility continued in the Education of the Handicapped Act (EHA) (1975, 1977) and in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (1997, 1999).

Legal Context

Additional rules were formulated in 1977 specifically for the LD category (34 CFR 300.541). These rules were a compromise that no one particularly liked or supported at the time, but they have survived as an apparently objective method used to solve a difficult problem: determining which students among those with achievement problems should be eligible

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