Is this a learning disability or a learning difficulty?

By March 5, 2021 No Comments

If someone asks me where does my desire for helping others come from, or where does that endless passion for working as a socio-academic and emotional interventionist come from, my only answer would be:

we all have either a learning disability or a learning difficulty,

and the way we are helped in the early years of our lives, as well as in the first levels of schooling, it will imprint a direct route to great achievements, or great frustrations: there is no intermediate stage at all.

We all find something difficult to a greater or lesser extent, but this does not imply that we all have a learning disability. This is what I am interested in writing this blog in order to give, as much clear as possible, the difference between learning disability and learning difficulty. Also, to give a general and brief idea of the implications of both, and finally to express my unconditional support to parents and children who fight every day for one achievement at a time. (Addressing the subject in depth, is what I cover in my workshops and conferences with directors, executives, teachers, parents and students.)

Now let’s start with the first concept: Learning disability. It is defined as a wide range of neurobiological disorders, related to the central nervous system, and therefore clearly intrinsic, which obviously do not depend on the environment or the educational system. It or they can occur during or after pregnancy, as in the case of severe meningitis. In addition, the learning disability affects one or more parts of the brain’s functioning, such as the ability to speak, listen, read, write, spell, reason, organize information or mathematical calculations, and last but not least, affects the behavior of individuals depending on the diagnosis and management of it.

Within the range of learning disabilities, in the case of the United States for example, the federal government acknowledges the following thirteen categories:

  • Autism
  • Deaf blindness
  • Deafness
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Hearing impairment
  • Intellectual disability
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment
  • Specific learning disability
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment including blindness

These disabilities do have a “comorbid” or “concomitant” factor. That is to say, another medical aspect that is related to the one already present. For example: anxiety has as a comorbid factor digestion problems. Another example: autism also has digestion problems as a comorbid factor, due to the reduced food tastes in the diet of these people. Now that we covered the definition,

I would like to draw your attention to how these learning disabilities impact individuals in general, and those around them. Here is a list of factors purposely chosen, for their level of impact on the day-to-day of people’s lives with disabilities, their caregivers and loved ones:


  • Their executive functions, which: include analyzing, planning, organizing, developing, adjusting and completing projects
  • The ability to start and finish tasks
  • The flexibility to switch from one activity to another
  • Problem solving
  • The ability to regulate emotions
  • The ability to follow directions
  • The ability to understand the notion of time and follow the hours
  • The ability to understand and read mathematics
  • The ability to schedule their day to day
  • Future planning
  • The ability to measure the consequences of their actions
  • The ability to memorize
  • The capacity for sustained attention

The next concept is Learning difficulty. These problems occur when the individual has being subjected to an environment in which there is lack of affection, or low sensory motor stimulation, deficient nutritional, lack of interactive communication, physical or verbal violence, environments with very low levels of sanitation, etc., which cause a slower development which is reflected, among other factors, in learning capacities. These people can overcome their problems with an appropriate intervention (see my blog “This is an intervention, not a tutoring”) minimizing in many cases up to 100% of the problem. There are many types of learning difficulties, but I would take advantage of the COVID “learning”, and I can tell you that children in kinder may have a delay in their gross and fine motor skills, both needed for the writing learning process, since they have been without enough physical and tactile stimulation during the last year.

Finally, I would like to mention the fundamental role empathy does have in this field. Having a loved one with a learning disability creates great anxiety and stigma in the family. The “labels” or the word “disorder/disability” in itself generates fear, uncertainty and loneliness. Families live day by day with the alterations that we mentioned above, also with the fear that their children will not be accepted at school by their friends, or at university by their classmates, nor finding a job in the future,etc. It is a race with a very exhausting goal, but it can be done.

It is our responsibility as teachers, educators, friends, entrepreneurs,etc., not to leave these families and their children alone while they struggle every day to achieve something that, for some is taken for granted, but for them is a great achievement, that will allow their son or daughter to be much more independent in the future.

I want to close this writing with a beautiful cartoon from J.Lerner’s book, Learning Disabilities, in which the mother of a child ,with a learning disability ,comes to the classroom, and says to the teacher: “I have seen so many drawings made by my son about you, that I feel I already know you very well. ” (J.Lerner, pg469) That is my dream, that my smile and my laughter will always  be in the hearts of my students.

Alicia Donovan