Learning Disability or Learning Difference: What Does Each Term Mean?

What is the difference, really, between a "learning disability" and a "learning difference"? We'll help explain and also provide some important next steps for you, read on!

“I have an LD,” students will say to me. These students are the brave ones, and the ones who take their label as an explanation, not as a source of stigma.

So, what do they mean when they say that? LD can stand for “Learning Disability” or “Learning Difference.” When to use each term depends on the context, so let’s take a look at which word would be most appropriate in different situations:

How Do You Define “Learning Disability”?

Aside from the formal school definitions written about below, learning disability and learning difference are used interchangeably in the education sphere. Learning differences may include learning styles, although those are more about how someone prefers to learn best, and are not indicative of a diagnosable learning disability.

While “Learning Disability” is not pejorative, by definition, it fails to encompass the advantages that can come from having a diagnosed learning disability. For example, individuals with dyslexia (a type of learning disability) have been shown to have better three-dimensional spatial reasoning, understanding of abstract information and connections between concepts, and higher levels of creativity. With appropriate supports, individuals with learning differences also become more resilient and hard-working, since so much of their early years are spent in school, struggling. That said, some organizations support the continued use of “Learning Disabilities” to obviate confusion.

What About in Legal and Formal Contexts?

The DSM-V (the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is a set of guidelines that psychologists and school psychologists in the United States use to diagnose individuals whose development differs from the norm. The DSM-V identifies a “Learning Disability” as being anything from dyslexia to dyscalculia, encompassing difficulties from reading fluency or comprehension to math problem-solving. “Learning Difference” is not a diagnostic term and doesn’t usually appear in neuro-psychological/psycho-educational evaluation or on an Individual Education Plan (IEP).

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines a child with a specific Learning Disability as being one who “does not achieve adequately for the child’s age or to meet State-approved grade-level standards" when provided with instruction appropriate for the child’s age in oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skills, reading fluency skills, reading comprehension, mathematics calculation, and/or mathematics problem-solving, using appropriate assessments, and when the difficulties are not primarily the result of a visual, hearing, or motor disability, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, cultural factors, environmental or economic disadvantage, or limited English proficiency.

What Exactly Does All of That Mean?

The IDEA is the legal, educational act that prevents discrimination on multiple grounds. Its definition protects individuals with a variety of differences. The IDEA definition states that students cannot be diagnosed with a Learning Disability if they have not been taught properly, if they have not been tested properly, or if their difficulties can be attributed to other causes (e.g., issues with hearing, vision, emotions, or cognition). Students who have received appropriate teaching and testing and who do not experience other non-associated difficulties, but are still struggling, warrant the diagnosis. Most commonly, this is a result of a difficulty with memory, with language-based difficulties, with executive functions, or with some combination thereof.

Currently, “Learning Difference” does not give legal grounds for obtaining special education services or supports; thus it should not be used as a diagnostic term or as a term on a legal or educational document.

As with many potentially marginalized groups, I recommend emulating the language of the person you are talking to. If he or she says, “I have a learning disability,” use the term “learning disability.” If he or she prefers “learning difference,” mirror that terminology back.

Sources:

Eide, B. L., & Eide, F. F. (2011). The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain. New York, NY: Plume.

Learning Disabilities Association of New York State. (2008). Learning Disabilities vs. Differences. Retrieved from LDA of NYS.

National Center for Learning Disabilities. (2011). The DSM-V: An Opportunity for Improved Practice. Retrieved from National Center for Learning Disabilities.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. (2006). Topic: Identification of Specific Learning Disabilities. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Education

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