Learning Disabilities refer to a variety of disorders that affect the acquisition, retention, understanding, organization or use of verbal and/or non-verbal information. These disorders result from impairments in one or more psychological processes related to learning, in combination with otherwise average abilities essential for thinking and reasoning. Learning disabilities are specific, not global, impairments and as such, are distinct from intellectual disabilities. Learning disabilities range in severity and invariably interfere with the acquisition and use of one or more of the following important skills
Learning disabilities may also cause difficulties with organizational skills, social perception and social interaction. The impairments are generally life-long. However, their effects may be expressed differently over time, depending on the match between the demands of the environment and the individual's characteristics. Some impairments may be noted during the pre-school years, while others may not become evident until much later.
Learning disabilities are due to genetic, other congenital and/or acquired neuro-biological factors. They are not caused by factors such as cultural or language differences, inadequate or inappropriate instruction, socio-economic status or lack of motivation, although any one of these and other factors may compound the impact of learning disabilities. Frequently learning disabilities co-exist with other conditions, including attentional, behavioural and emotional disorders, sensory impairments or other medical conditions. (The Learning Disability Association of Canada, 2002)
A key point in the above definition is that people with learning disabilities have at least average abilities for thinking and reasoning. Students with learning disabilities who are in university often have above average intellectual abilities that have helped compensate for their specific difficulties in processing visual or auditory information. Students in university may have been diagnosed with a learning disability during their early school years or not until high school or university. For those diagnosed later, there is evidence that the difficulties were present earlier but the student managed to learn through hard work and support from teachers and parents. As academic demands increased, hard work was not enough and the student sought help to understand why they were not performing well given their efforts.
Diagnosis of a learning disability is generally made by a psychologist following an in depth psycho-educational assessment. A developmental, family and educational history is obtained. Tests of cognitive abilities (e.g. verbal abilities, problem solving, memory) and of academic abilities (e.g. reading comprehension, oral and written language, math) are also given. Students diagnosed with a learning disability will have a history of learning difficulties despite generally average cognitive abilities.
Students with learning disabilities have the ability to do university work but depending on their particular difficulties may need accommodations such as a reader or scribe, use of assistive software or extra time on examinations. The extra time compensates for slower reading rates, difficulties in comprehension of written information, slower information processing or difficulties with organizing and expressing ideas. Some students with learning disabilities have a print disability and need their textbooks and other readings on audiotape. Students with learning disabilities also may benefit from learning some active strategies for learning. Strategies for note taking, reading a textbook, studying and writing exams have been found helpful. Some students with learning disabilities have low self-esteem based on their years of struggle with learning. They may benefit from counseling.
The Disability Resource Centre assists students with learning difficulties to obtain an assessment of their learning needs and to access appropriate supports to succeed in their studies.