Size & Scope of the Learning Disability (LD) Community
The number of people with learning disabilities is virtually impossible to estimate with a high degree of accuracy. Due to stigmas, many diagnosed individuals do not publicly acknowledge their conditions.
For instance, the nonprofit National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) reports that 3 out of 4 college students with learning disabilities do not disclose this information to their schools, and 19 out of 20 young adults with learning disabilities do not receive workplace accommodations. Many doctors with dyslexia—characterized by difficulty reading or interpreting words and sounds—are not only reluctant to reveal their conditions, but fear being recognized as such.
Further complicating the issue of estimating how widespread learning disorders are, many individuals with learning disabilities remain undiagnosed, privately struggling without knowing why. However, current estimates suggest that 5 to 9 percent of the U.S. population have learning disabilities.
The nonprofit Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) states 2.3 million students have been diagnosed with specific learning disabilities (SLD) and receive services under the U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—comprising 35% of all children receiving special education services. Additionally, citing data from the National Center for Education Statistics, National Adult Literacy & Learning Disabilities Center, and National Institutes of Health, the group reports 75% to 80% of those experience basic deficits in reading and language, and an untreated or undetected learning disability affects 60% of adults with severe literacy problems.
Learning disabilities encompass a wide range of characteristics, which also contributes to misunderstanding about this community. The Learning Disabilities Association of America explains these conditions:
“Learning disabilities are due to genetic and/or neurobiological factors that alter brain functioning in a manner which affects one or more cognitive processes related to learning. These processing problems can interfere with learning basic skills such as reading, writing and/or math. They can also interfere with higher level skills such as organization, time planning, abstract reasoning, long or short term memory and attention. It is important to realize that learning disabilities can affect an individual’s life beyond academics and can impact relationships with family, friends and in the workplace.”
The following is a useful rundown of several forms of learning disabilities and associated statistics:
Dyslexia is thought to be the most common learning disability, with the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) estimating that 15 to 20 percent of school-aged children in the United States display dyslexia-like symptoms.
Dyscalculia, a learning disability that affects the ability to do math, is not as well known or well understood as dyslexia, but some experts believe it may be just as common. That said, current estimates suggest 5 to 10 percent of the population may have dyscalculia.
Dysgraphia presents as difficulties with writing and fine motor skills, potentially including trouble spelling, spacing letters, and writing legibly. The condition may affect up to 20 percent of children.
No formal diagnostic criteria have been established for non-verbal learning disability (NVLD or NLD), but it is commonly agreed that the condition is marked by difficulties reading non-verbal cues that result in social, math, and visual-spatial skill deficits. It’s estimated that 3 to 4 percent of children have this disorder.
Additionally, approximately 10 percent of children and adults experience reading comprehension difficulties, though their decoding skills remain intact, and an estimated 5 percent of children have a language disorder of some type.
While attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are not technically learning disabilities, they are often grouped together. The reason for this is twofold: First, many individuals with ADD and ADHD also have learning disabilities. The Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) estimates that 20 to 30 percent of children with ADHD also have a learning disability. Secondly, regardless of their classification, ADD and ADHD can make learning more challenging. For these reasons, many organizations that serve the learning disabled community also include the ADD/ADHD community.
Confronting Stigmas & Other Challenges
As aforementioned, biases and misperceptions play significant roles in the misidentification and underreporting of learning disabilities. NCLD reports “low-income children, students of color and English language learners are more likely to be identified as having specific learning disabilities (SLD).” However, it is unclear whether this is an overrepresentation of these populations or an underrepresentation of other groups.
In one study examining learning disabled stigmas, for example, participants rated individuals identified as such as being less successful, less emotionally stable, and even less attractive. Regardless of whether or not dyslexics—believed to be the most common LD—view their condition as a disability, evidence suggests they experience discrimination.
Because of all these inaccurate perceptions, many people with learning disabilities keep this information private.
"There are so many people in this world who strongly believe that anyone with a learning disability is lazy and dumb," learning disability influencer Jacquelyn Taylor tells InclusionHub. "However, this can’t be further from the truth."
Stigmas impacting those with learning disabilities also transcend personal or professional relationships. NCLD’s comprehensive “The State of LD” analysis and other surveys report shared confusion, myths, and stereotyping among educators and even parents.
Among these findings:
- 33% of classroom teachers deem attention or learning issues “really just laziness.”
- 43% of parents “wouldn’t want others to know if their child had a learning disability.”
- 48% of parents surveyed believe “children can grow out of learning disabilities.”
- 78% of parents believe that “any child can do well in school if he or she tries hard enough.”
- Doctors reported that parents with children recommended for attention and learning issues evaluations only do so 54% of the time.
In addition to these challenges, disabled communities of all types have historically faced significant barriers to everything from their civil rights to accessing products and services online.
Similar to other disabled groups, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has exposed such societal and technological shortcomings regarding digital inclusion and accessibility for the learning disabled, and even amplified pre-existing obstacles.
As schools and institutions shuttered nationwide and teaching shifted to online operations, remote coursework, and remote learning, longstanding disparities facing these communities became even more apparent, as outlined in a passionate March 2020 op-ed by Deanna Ferrante, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who identifies as learning disabled.
“At many universities, online education has been consistently underfunded and understaffed, exposing the irony of this current crisis,” she writes. “In the past, students who need class content to be moved online have faced opposition from administration claiming that the transition would be too expensive, take too much time, and require too much extra training for educators. Students have had to drop out of classes and even abandon college altogether due to the refusal of universities to accommodate online learning needs. It is painful to me and many others in the disability community that as soon as non-disabled people require the use of online classes to complete their education, the whole world scrambles to get everything running in a mere week.”
Learning Disability Groups and Resources
The following is a brief list of nonprofit support and advocacy organizations, as well as social media groups and influencers striving to raise awareness about this community and providing educational resources to further set the record straight.
General Learning Disability Resources
- Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA)
- National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD)
- LD OnLine
General Learning Disabilities
- Nessy’s Global Group - Support for Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia
- Children With Learning Disabilities
- Dyslexia & Learning Disability Support Group
Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD/NVLD)
Education & Inclusion Is Key
Understanding the challenges faced by the learning disabled community is the first step toward helping address the historical and ongoing biases and technological barriers preventing them from utilizing the same institutions and products and services as non-disabled people.
Such discrimination is inherent within the many technological barriers posed by non-inclusive website designs. The various support groups shared above serve as great starting points for a deeper appreciation of these and other obstacles, providing critical insights, resources, and information about this community, as well as how to effectively improve digital inclusion and accessibility, for all.
“Learning shouldn’t be something only those without disabilities get to do,” explains Seren Davies, a full stack software engineer and accessibility advocate who is dyslexic. “It should be for everyone. By thinking about digital accessibility, we are making sure that everyone who wants to learn can.”
"It doesn’t matter if someone is typical or atypical," says Taylor. "We all deserve kindness, respect, and of course, getting the proper support whenever we need it."
Read our guide “Improving Digital Inclusion & Accessibility for Those With Learning Disabilities” to learn more about learning disabilities and how they relate to digital accessibility. For comprehensive information on how to make websites more accessible for everyone, visit InclusionHub.