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Definitions of specific learning disability and laws pertaining to learning disabilities in the United States

L Erik von Hahn, MD
Section Editor
Carolyn Bridgemohan, MD
Deputy Editor
Mary M Torchia, MD


The definitions of learning disability and laws pertaining to learning disabilities will be presented below, focusing on the types of services for which students are eligible and how disability determination is made in schools. The clinical features, evaluation, and management of learning disabilities are discussed separately. (See "Specific learning disabilities in children: Clinical features" and "Specific learning disabilities in children: Educational management".)


Specific learning disabilities (LDs) are a heterogeneous group of disorders characterized by the unexpected failure of an individual to acquire, retrieve, and use information competently. LDs are caused by inborn or acquired abnormalities in brain structure and function, have a multifactorial etiology, and are difficult to separate from learning failure due to lack of environmental opportunity [1]. LDs are the most severe, pervasive, and chronic form of learning difficulty in children with average or above-average intellectual abilities [2,3].

Definitions of LDs vary, but the crucial element is an intrinsic cognitive difficulty that results in academic achievement at a level less than expected for the individual's intellectual potential [4-6]. Reading disability (RD) is traditionally believed to be the most common form of LD [7,8] but epidemiologic data suggest that writing and math disabilities may be just as common [9-11]. Nonetheless, the majority of information about LDs is derived from studies of children with RD [4]. (See "Reading difficulty in children: Normal reading development and etiology of reading difficulty" and "Reading difficulty in children: Clinical features and evaluation".)

The term "learning disability" is used to refer to intellectual disability (mental retardation) in some countries. Intellectual disability is discussed separately. (See "Intellectual disability in children: Definition, diagnosis, and assessment of needs" and "Intellectual disability in children: Evaluation for a cause" and "Intellectual disability in children: Management, outcomes, and prevention".)


Since the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142) in 1975, there has been, and continues to be, difficulty achieving clinical consensus regarding the definition of specific learning disability (LD) [12-14]. The lack of definitional uniformity makes it more difficult to draw firm conclusions about effective interventions, affects the delivery and rationing of services, and affects the quality of research [2,15,16].

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Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Sep 27, 2017.
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