Definition of Learning Disabilities


The definition most often used in higher education is that of the U.S. Department of Education, Rehabilitation Services Administration, which reads as follows:

A specific learning disability is a disorder in one or more of the central nervous system processes involved in perceiving, understanding, and/or using concepts through verbal (spoken or written) language or nonverbal means. This disorder manifests itself with a deficit in one or more of the following areas: attention, reasoning, processing, memory, communication, reading, writing, spelling, calculation, coordination, social competence and emotional maturity.

This dysfunction continues despite instruction in standard classroom situations. Some common attributes of learning disabled individuals are:

  • Average to superior intelligence
  • A chronic disorder of neurological origin which causes severe processing deficit
  • A severe discrepancy between achievement and aptitude in one or more areas
  • Measured achievement in an instructional or employment setting; and
  • Measured age-appropriate adaptive behavior in an instructional or employment setting

Often people assume that students with learning disabilities are unmotivated and unintelligent. Many question whether these students can succeed in college. In reality, students with learning disabilities are not intellectually limited nor are they unmotivated. They have the potential to succeed in higher education. The student's problems are associated with information processing, whereby the information received or transmitted is distorted.

Common instructional methods, such as lectures, are often inadequate for the student's learning needs. Alternative methods will increase the student's academic performance, as well as decrease his or her frustration in learning situations.

Some of the specific terms for disorders included under the umbrella term "learning disabilities" are:

  • dyslexia (difficulty with reading)
  • dysgraphia (difficulty with writing)
  • dyscalculia (difficulty with mathematics)

The exact causes of a learning disability are unknown; they may be neurological, biochemical, psychological, or environmental in origin.

Depending on the specific disability, some of the characteristics of college students with learning disabilities may include the following:

Study Skills

  • Inability to change from one task to another
  • No system for organizing notes and other materials
  • Difficulty scheduling time to complete short and long-term assignments
  • Difficulty completing tests and in-class assignments without additional time
  • Difficulty following directions

Interpersonal Skills

  • Impulsivity
  • Difficulty delaying resolution to a problem
  • Disorientation in time - misses class and appointments
  • Poor self-esteem


  • Difficulty reading new words, particularly when sound/symbol relationships are inconsistent
  • Slow reading rate - takes longer to read a test and other in-class assignments
  • Poor comprehension and retention of material read
  • Difficulty interpreting charts, graphs, scientific symbols
  • Difficulty with complex syntax on objective tests


  • Problems in organization and sequencing of ideas
  • Poor sentence structure
  • Incorrect grammar
  • Frequent and inconsistent spelling errors
  • Difficulty taking notes
  • Poor letter formation, capitalization, spacing and punctuation
  • Inadequate strategies for monitoring written work

Oral Language

  • Difficulty concentrating in lectures, especially lectures of several hours
  • Poor vocabulary, difficulty with word retrieval
  • Problems with grammar


  • Difficulty with basic math operations
  • Difficulty with aligning problems, number reversals, confusion of symbols
  • Poor strategies for monitoring errors
  • Difficulty with reasoning
  • Difficulty reading and comprehending word problems
  • Difficulty with concepts of time and money

Return to Learning Disabilities for Guide

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Go to Learning Disabilities Program webpage