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Adults with Learning Disabilities: An Overview

by Ralph G. Leverett, Ph.D.,
Union University, Jackson, TN

Forty years ago, the field of learning disabilities was just forming.  By the mid-1960's, learning disabilities had developed into the newest category in Special Education.  Few persons really understood this new field at that time.  Even professionals often described the field by what it was not as much as what is was.  The definition by exclusion continues today.

A person with learning disabilities may display some characteristics similar to mild retardation or behavior disorders, but, by definition, they are neither mentally retarded nor behavior disordered.  Measured intelligence must be in the average range, usually 85 or above in most states, and the behavior problems do no meet the criteria for behavior disorders or emotional disturbance.  Although problems in listening may exist, hearing loss is not the cause.  A person may have difficulty interpreting a visual stimulus correctly, but not because of poor visual acuity.  The ratio of males to females stands at approximately four to one.

During the decades since the mid-1960's, the field of learning disabilities grew to become the largest category in Special Education.  Estimates in 1996 were that the total number of students identified ranged from 800,00 to as many as 2,000,000.  Although students in elementary grades generally received effective programming, middle school and high school students often received only token service, if they were served at all.  Schools seemed to assume that problems beyond the elementary grades required less conscientious attention.

By the 1980's, students who had been among the first identified by schools were reaching your adulthood.  This period was characterized by debate among professionals who served students with learning disabilities.  Some educators outside the field even questioned the existence of learning disabilities as an entity.  They saw the label as an excuse for poor academic performance.

Within the field of learning disabilities, professional organizations began to align in moderate and conservative camps.  The conservative camp, including parents, many from the medical field, and a hardy group of professionals remained open to assessment and instructional methods which were questioned by the more reform-minded professionals.  During a period of the 1980's, it appeared that the division of learning disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children might not survive.

Society gradually recognized that the problems of young children with learning disabilities had not disappeared as they grew older.  Although some students had learned useful compensatory skills to "work around" their difficulties, others had not.

As professionals became aware of the traits of learning disabilities remaining in adulthood, they learned that the problems of young adults appeared remarkably like those of childhood.  Children who had been in the protective environment of the home and school were now old enough to apply to college or enter the workforce.  Many of these students were unprepared or underprepared for either setting.  Still other young adults had not been diagnosed as school-age students and had no explanation for the problems that threatened their success.

During the past decade, the interest in adults with learning disabilities has increased significantly.  The Learning Disabilities Association of America and other professional organizations have promoted awareness in and the development of guidelines for the evaluation and treatment of learning disabilities in adults.  It is common today to read of issues related to adult learning disabilities, including the use of various drugs to control distractibility and impulsivity.

Although the number adults with learning disabilities varies depending upon how they are identified.  Vogel and associates (in press) reported that college-age students with learning disabilities averaged about 2.6% "in institutions divided by Carnegie classification."  These estimates might run as high as 10% in colleges with open admission.  Of additional interest in the Vogel study is that while students in public schools present a 4:1 ratio of males to females, by adulthood, the ratio seems almost evenly divided.  These figures suggest several possibilities.  One is that female students may be underdiagnosed and not receive the assistance that would have allowed them to become successful during school years.  A second possibility is that male students have accompanying behavior problems that trigger their referral to special education.  A third consideration is that we are more concerned about the performance of males than we are of females.  If any of these possibilities are true, they have significant implications for the "sociology of learning disabilities."

Such interest has been encouraged by the documentation of the differences in the brains of persons with learning disabilities compared to those of the typically developing population.  Positive emission tomography (PET) scans provide us with images of the brain at work.  As a result, parents and professionals from both the conservative and moderate camps who continued to believe in the legitimacy of learning disabilities during a period during which they were questioned as "the rich (or white) man's retardation" have reasonable security to defend their beliefs that the disabilities are genuine.

Characteristics of Adults with Learning Disabilities
School-age children with learning disabilities have a profile of abilities and disabilities that have been documented consistently since the category was formalized in the mid-1960's.  Disabilities typically fall into two school-related categories:  language and math.

Language disabilities can include listening comprehension, speech (including misarticulated sounds and organization of thought), initial reading skills or reading comprehension, and written expression which includes spelling and the logical organization of thoughts in writing.

Students whose primary difficulties are in math may have problems with the mechanics of math (the basic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) or in math concepts.  The latter area includes concepts such as greater than, is equal to, sum, remainder and related terms that might be described as the "language of math."

As students grow to adulthood, many of these school-related problems may have been minimized.  Some, however, will persist into adulthood.  As a result, a significant number of students with learning disabilities become unemployed or underemployed young adults.  The more serious problems of adults, however, may be in social rather than academic areas.  It is not uncommon for adults with learning disabilities to have difficulty adjusting to a variety of relationships from dating to employment.  Many of these problems relate to deficits in pragmatic language skills.

Pragmatic language includes the broad uses of nonverbal and verbal language.  Critical areas of pragmatic language include the ability to interpret the content and intent of spoken language as well as the effect that the nonverbal language has on the literal message.  For example, in sarcasm, the literal spoken message may appear complimentary.  The tone of the speaker's voice cancels the literal message and converts it from complimentary to insulting.

Crucial skills in pragmatic language related to employment include the ability to interact with authority figures in appropriate ways.  Word choice and tone conveys respect or its absence.  Adults with learning disabilities often speak to everyone in a manner that is too direct or informal.  When this manner is combined with poor listening skills and impulsive responses (other hallmarks of learning disabilities) the result is less than satisfactory performance in the workplace.  It is not uncommon for an adult with learning disabilities to walk out of a job suddenly or to respond to suggestions or criticism in a manner that results in termination by the employer.

Dating and marriage constitute two areas of significant difficulty for young adults with learning disabilities.  The adult with learning disabilities may fail to read crucial verbal or nonverbal messages correctly and never experience a successful relationship with persons of the opposite sex.  Misinterpretation of the action or words of a date may result in behavior that is too aggressive, insulting, or persistent.  These same behaviors can be the source of difficulty in a marriage as well.  Additional problems in marriage include the inability to talk through the various issues that arise.  In a related manner, interpreting the responses of one's mate too literally may result in responses that are inappropriately rude or abrupt.  Worse for some mates would be the lack of responses at all--never understanding that a comment requires acknowledgement of the concerns expressed.

A prominent characteristic of many adults with learning disabilities is poor self-worth/self-esteem/self-concept.  Some adults with learning disabilities have never or rarely experienced success at any time in their lives.  They may have felt failure as young children as they were compared to siblings or acquaintances who seemed to "have it all together."  By the time children with learning disabilities reach adolescence or young adulthood, repeated failure has become a pattern so they can expect failure, or at least are not surprised when it occurs.  Even success can reinforce the sense of negative worth since it is often the exception rather than the rule.

As we reflect on the various characteristics of learning disabilities in adults, those that are related to the application of academic skills to life may be of less concern than the traits related to socio-emotional and vocational success.  While the school years are certainly important, they are spent within the relative security of home.  The greater part of life exists beyond that period and depends upon earning a livable wage as well as developing and maintaining significant social relationships.

Although much of what has been said regarding adults with learning disabilities appears negative, some do achieve success.  The most notable ones have been in the fields of entertainment and sports, among them are Tom Cruise, Cher, and Mark Spitz.  While their levels of success are exceptions to the norm, they do serve as role models.

In summary, adults with learning disabilities represent an intriguing group of unemployed, underemployed, and misunderstood persons.  This population calls for the concerted efforts of high school counselors, special educators, representatives from Vocational Rehabilitation, family members, and the young adults themselves.  They constitute a potentially valuable workforce which, with education or reeducation and mentoring might achieve self-worth as well a vocational satisfaction.

Reference:  Vogel, S.A. & Reder, S. (in press).  Literacy proficiency of adults with self-reported learning disabilities.  In M.C. Smith (Ed.), Literacy for the 21st Century: Research, policy, practices, and the National Adult Literacy Survey.  Westport, CT: Greenwood Press

Suggested Resources: Websites:  http://www.acld.com; http://www.ldagvi.org; http://www.ncld.org; http://www.ldanatl.org; http://www.ldonline.org; http://www.personal.u-net.com; http://www.chadd.org
Text:  Vogel, S. & Reder, S. (1998). Learning disabilities, literacy, and adult education.  Baltimore, MD: Brookes. (This is a definitive text for the issues surrounding adults with learning disabilities.)

"An appetite for knowledge and beauty exists in the human mind and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such and beauty as such, in the sure confidence that by doing so we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so."
-C.S. Lewis; Learning in Wartime; The Weight of Glory