About Learning Disabilities

Cognitive (learning) disabilities are neurologically-based impairments that significantly affect learning and perhaps other major life activities. 

Origins of learning disabilities

Some cognitive disabilities result from head injuries. Some are lifelong circumstances experienced from childhood.

Common diagnoses:

  • Cognitive Disorders
  • Learning Disorders
  • Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD)
  • Post-Traumatic Head (or Brain) Injuries

Commonly used and less clinical terms include “learning disabilities,” “dyslexia,” “Attention Deficit Disorder” and “head injuries.”

Learning disabilities and academic performance

Cognitive disabilities may affect one or more areas of academic performance while leaving other areas relatively unaffected.

Students often encounter specific difficulties in:

  • foreign languages
  • mathematics
  • reading
  • handwriting
  • certain examination formats regardless of subject area

A student may experience severe difficulties in one area, yet attain a high level of achievement in another. A student may, for example, experience enormous difficulty in foreign language courses, especially in drill sessions, while excelling in mathematics. Poor performance (and associated frustration and anxiety) may occur in spite of high motivation and many hours of study.

Student Adjustments

Students with cognitive disabilities may need academic adjustments, services, or program modifications (often referred to as “academic adjustments”). Each student’s circumstances are unique, so academic adjustments, services, and program modifications are determined on an individualized basis.

Some of the more common academic adjustments and services include extended time, a separate venue for timed in-class tests, note-taking support, document conversion, use of adaptive technology, reduced course loads, speech-to-text captioning, and development of advocacy skills.

Student eligibility and requirements

Service eligibility is based in large part on the quality and comprehensiveness of a student’s disability documentation and degree of current functional need. A record of prior academic adjustments, services, or program modifications, in and of itself, is usually insufficient to support the same array in higher education.

A physician’s, psychologist’s or other practitioner’s determination, recommendation or assertion about appropriate adjustments is valued, but there are many factors to consider. The ultimate judgment rests with a college or university.

Generally, it is the student’s responsibility to provide current and comprehensive documentation that substantiates a student’s disability-related need for services at a college or university (this is different from K-12 in the United States, where schools/school districts may be required to arrange and fund certain kinds of disability assessments).