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Learning disabilities

Learning disability or intellectual disability? 

     Even though these terms’ meanings are radically different, they may be misunderstood and confused with one another. Not only does their correct understanding allow for accurate and effective implementations of accommodations, but it also avoids the spread of harmful stereotypes regarding one’s abilities and intelligence. According to the DSM-5, an “intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) is characterized by deficits in general mental abilities, such as reasoning, problem-solving, planning, abstract thinking, judgment, academic learning, and learning from experience” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 31). In contrast, a learning disability, also called learning difficulty or learning disorder, is a persistent difficulty affecting keystone academic skills such as reading, writing, and mathematical calculations or reasoning. It does not arise from a lack of educational opportunities and support, general external factors (i.e., economic or environmental disadvantages), intellectual disabilities, or neurological, motor, hearing or vision disorders. It can be limited to a specific academic skill and domain and cannot be overcome through training. Thus, a learning disability affects one’s ability to process  information or convert it (i.e., from sounds to letters and vice versa) rather than their capacity to understand it.

Learning disabilities classified in the DSM-5: 

Dyscalculia - Impairment in mathematics: Pattern of difficulties in processing numerical information, memorization of arithmetic facts and accuracy in calculation, and math reasoning. 

Dyslexia – Impairment in reading: Pattern of difficulties regarding word reading accuracy, rate, fluency, and comprehension.

Impairment in written expression: Pattern of difficulties regarding accuracy in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and the clarity or organization of written expression. 


Other learning disabilities

Dysgraphia: pattern of difficulties regarding transcription and writing coherence, impacting handwriting, orthographic coding, and finger sequencing. 

Nonverbal learning disability: patterns of difficulties regarding visuospatial skills (identification of visual and spatial relationships between objects), impacting visuoconstructive skills (motor coordination) and visuospatial memory skills (orientation). 

In class


What is happening when the issue arises


Why is the situation challenging?


How can the situation be made more accessible?

The lecturer calls on a student to read a text out loud and chooses a student with dyslexia. 

The students may not be confident in their reading abilities, get nervous, focus on reading correctly to the point of not understanding/reflecting on the material’s content while doing so. Not only does this put pressure on them, but it may also lead them to miss out on the content discussed later on.  

- Making the exercise voluntary.

- Not calling on students with dyslexia to read out loud in the classroom.

Deadlines & Assignments


What is happening when the issue arises


Why is the situation challenging?


How can the situation be made more accessible?


- Extensive readings for classes


- Announcing or making readings available with a short notice.

Impaired reading speed leads to much longer work sessions and exhaustion for students with dyslexia. Thus, they also need to organize their readings more in advance than in between two classes.

If they do not do the reading, they come unprepared for class and miss out on important information.  

- Use audio-texts and/or text-to-speech software.

- Spacing out the readings to give the students enough time to go through them.


- Making the readings available at the beginning of the course so that the students can organize themselves. 


- Letting the students know what parts of the readings are most important. 


- Providing visual summaries of the material (i.e., diagrams)

Many deadlines in the same week 

Slow reading speed and writing difficulties lead to longer work sessions on an assignment and exhaustion. 

- Limiting the number of deadlines in the week. 


Giving the option to the students with dyslexia of spreading out the assignments or an extension. 


Option to move deadlines at the beginning of the semester (to avoid overlap with other classes)

Required quality in spelling/grammar

Students’ difficulties do not arise from lack of work or misunderstanding of their final products, yet their work’s quality and assessment may be negatively impacted.

- Use of writing software. 


Peer review from another student. 


Some assessments such as weekly responses and less substantial essays can be completed in a non-written form (completely or partially), such as audio or video recordings.

Written examinations 

Written examinations put a lot of pressure on students: not only is the quality and correctness of their work evaluated, but they also have to perform under a time limit that might not be sufficient for them to finish the exercises. 

In some cases, exams are required to be handwritten which makes the situation even more problematic as it is a skill that is inherently altered for students. 

- Extra time can provide the students with enough time to finish their work. 


Option of reading and writing the exam using a computer. 


- In some cases, where students struggle with reading symbols (i.e. Logic course), the option of being read out loud the questions and/or having a writing assistant allow them to complete the examination and be assessed on their understanding of the material rather than the skills that should not be relevant to it. 

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