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Common Misperceptions About Learning Disabilities

Many misperceptions circulate about learning disabilities (LD). Some are rooted in the confusion surrounding LD’s numerous labels and complexities. Others result from a less-than-full awareness of advances in knowledge about how people learn. As educators we are responsible for staying up-to-date and correcting others’ misperceptions when we encounter them.

Misperception: Students with LD aren’t intelligent.

The word disability fosters the misperception that students with LD can’t learn, because disable means not able. They can learn; they simply learn differently. Our culture generally defines intelligence according to academic performance. Because students with LD often perform poorly in school, many people assume they are not intelligent.

The truth is two-fold. First, students with LD often demonstrate skills and abilities that are not assessed in school. They may shine in other settings or when encouraged to demonstrate their intelligence in nontraditional ways. Second, students with LD usually score in the average-tosuperior range on general intelligence tests. Though these tests are fairly reliable indicators of how students will perform in school, they don’t predict school success for students with LD. This discrepancy highlights the fact that students with LD are intelligent and can reach their potential when teaching and assessment match their learning and performance styles.

Misperception: Students with LD would do better in school if they tried harder.

Because most students with LD look and act like other students, it seems inexplicable that they have difficulty with such basic tasks as writing neatly and understanding what they read. Their effort to perform tasks for which they lack skills can lead to frustration and defeat. Students who are not trying have probably given up. They, along with those who are trying but not succeeding, need explicit individualized instruction.

Misperception: Students with LD would do better in school if they would stay better organized.

Students with LD are notoriously disorganized. They lose homework, take messy notes, miss deadlines, etc.. A lack of organization is actually a manifestation of a learning disability. These students don’t know how to get and stay organized. The systems that other students intuitively develop must be explicitly taught and practiced with students with LD.

Misperception: It’s not fair to the other students if some students are given extra time or less work to do.

The misperception that students with LD who receive accommodations are given an unfair advantage is based in some people’s refusal to acknowledge that learning disabilities (though mostly invisible) are as real as physical disabilities. Would teachers require a blind student to read a typed essay or ask a student in a wheelchair to take the stairs in the interest of “fairness”? Of course not. We would provide accommodations so they could meet the task’s objective in a different way. Offering students with LD accommodations is fair in the same way.

Misperception: A learning disability is always diagnosed in elementary school.

Some people find it hard to believe that a student can progress through many years of school without having LD, then suddenly be diagnosed. There are many types and degrees of LD. Some students manage to hide their struggles or compensate for their difficulties. The disability only becomes apparent in a faster-paced or more advanced curriculum where the focus is on content rather than skills, and the strategies they had used successfully cease to be effective.

This article was adapted from Teaching Independent Minds by Patricia W. Newhall of the Landmark School Outreach Program. Published by Landmark School.