Learning Disabilities: Understanding the Problem


At age 14, Susan still tends to be quiet. Ever since she was a child, she was so withdrawn that people sometimes forgot she was there. She seemed to drift into a world of her own. When she did talk, she often called objects by the wrong names.

She had few friends and mostly played with dolls or her little sister. In school, Susan hated reading and math because none of the letters, numbers or “+” and “-” signs made any sense. She felt awful about herself. She’d been told – and was convinced – that she was retarded.


Wallace has lived 46 years, and still has trouble understanding what people say. Even as a boy, many words sounded alike. His father patiently said things over and over. But whenever his mother was drunk, she flew into a rage and spanked him for not listening.

Wallace’s speech also came out funny. He had such problems saying words that in school his teacher sometimes couldn’t understand him. When classmates called him a “dummy,” his fists just seemed to take over.


Dennis is 23 years old and still seems to have too much energy. But he had always been an overactive boy, sometimes jumping on the sofa for hours until he collapsed with exhaustion. In grade school, he never sat still. He interrupted lessons.

But he was a friendly, well-meaning kid, so adults didn’t get too angry. His academic problems became evident in third grade, when his teacher realized that Dennis could only recognize a few words and wrote like a first grader.

She recommended that Dennis repeat third grade, to give him time to “catch up.” After another full year, his behavior was still out of control, and his reading and writing had not improved.

Getting Help


Susan was promoted to the sixth grade but still couldn’t do basic math. So, her mother brought her to a private clinic for testing. The clinician observed that Susan had trouble associating symbols with their meaning, and this was holding back her language, reading, and math development.

Susan called objects by the wrong words and she could not associate sounds with letters or recognize math symbols. However, an IQ of 128 meant that Susan was quite bright.

In addition to developing an Individualized Education Plan, the clinician recommended that Susan receive counseling for her low self-esteem and depression.


In the early 1960s, at the request of his ninth grade teacher, Wallace was examined by a doctor to see why he didn’t speak or listen well. The doctor tested his vocal cords, vision, and hearing. They were all fine. The teacher concluded that Wallace must have “brain damage,” so not much could be done.

Wallace kept failing in school and was suspended several times for fighting. He finally dropped out after tenth grade. He spent the next 25 years working as a janitor. Because LD frequently went undiagnosed at the time when Wallace was young, the needed help was not available to him.


In fifth grade, Dennis’ teacher sent him to the school psychologist for testing. Dennis was diagnosed as having developmental reading and developmental writing disorders. He was also identified as having an attention disorder with hyperactivity.

He was placed in an all-day special education program, where he could work on his particular deficits and get individual attention. His family doctor prescribed the medication Ritalin to reduce his hyperactivity and distractibility.

Along with working to improve his reading, the special education teacher helped him improve his listening skills. Since his handwriting was still poor, he learned to type homework and reports on a computer.

At age 19, Dennis graduated from high school and was accepted by a college that gives special assistance to students with learning disabilities.

Sustaining Hope


Susan is now in ninth grade and enjoys learning. She no longer believes she’s retarded, and her use of words has improved.

Susan has become a talented craftsperson and loves making clothes and furniture for her sister’s dolls. Although she’s still in a special education program, she is making slow but steady progress in reading and math.


Over the years, Wallace found he liked tinkering with cars and singing in the church choir. At church, he met a woman who knew about learning disabilities. She told him he could get help through his county social services office.

Since then, Wallace has been working with a speech therapist, learning to articulate and notice differences in speech sounds. When he complains that he’s too old to learn, his therapist reminds him, “It’s never too late to work your good brain!”

His state vocational rehabilitation office recently referred him to a job-training program. Today, at age 46, Wallace is starting night school to become an auto mechanic. He likes it because it’s a hands-on program where he can learn by doing.


Dennis is now age 23. As he walks into the college job placement office, he smiles and shakes hands confidently. After shuffling through a messy stack of papers, he finally hands his counselor a neatly typed resume.

Although Dennis jiggles his foot and interrupts occasionally, he’s clearly enthusiastic. He explains that because tape-recorded books and lectures got him through college, he’d like to sell electronics. Dennis says he’ll also be getting married next year.

He and his fiancee are concerned that their children also will have LD. “But we’ll just have to watch and get help early – a lot earlier than I did!”