The Learning Disability Mess

 Professor Ruth Colker: The Learning Disability Mess

(You can download Professor Colker's Ohio State Public Law Working Paper No. 156, The Learning Disability Mess here.)


Parents often wonder why public school Exceptional Children's services are so confusing and so often ineffective.

Professor Colker traces the history of the term "learning disability" and explains how inconsistent, vague and confusing applications of this term have lead to the current "mess". 

She quotes Aaron, Joshi, Gooden and Bentum (2008) and Vaughn, Levy, Coleman, and Bos (2002) who argue that procedures used to identify learning disabled children often do not provide "instructionally useful information and may contribute to inadequate remedial efforts." (p.112)  Colker concludes by describing the effect of this "mess" on the admissions policies and accommodations procedures in higher education in the United States.

Although she does not go in to detail about the causes of "inadequate remedial efforts" she does point out that, by definition, children categorized as learning disabled are a heterogeneous lot.  School children with "learning disabilities" may have very different disorders (e.g., dyslexia, specific language impairment, symbolic dysfunction, traumatic brain injury or even autism spectrum disorder).   Yet schools call all these various disorders by the same label, learning disabilities,  and typically group them together for intervention. Since the evidence-based treatment approaches for these disorders differ greatly (some could be described as polar opposites), it is not surprising that group treatment for "learning disabilities" leads to "inadequate remedial efforts". 

Colker's Special Education Eligibility Flow Chart (attached below) illustrates the complexity and difficulties parents face in trying to get their child qualified for what often turns out to be "inadequate remedial efforts."

Professor Colker addressed this topic in a Lexercise Live Broadcast  on 1-19-12. You can get a recording of that Live Broadcast here.

She explores this theme in greater depth in her 2013 book- Disabled Education: A Critical Analysis of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. New York: New York University Press.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics suggest that public schools identify less that 1/4 of public school students who struggle with symptoms of dyslexia under the category of learning disability.  We urge parents to understand that the term "learning disability" is NOT a diagnosis and, if they possibly can, not to depend on public school services alone and to seek research-backed help for their child.  This must start with a language processing evaluation and a clear diagnosis.

Ruth Colker's Flowchart.pdf


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