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DEFINITIONSOF LEARNINGDISABILITIES

FROM ADULTS WITH LEARNINGDISABILI-


TIES: THE INSIDERS' PERSPECTIVES
Henry B. Reiff, Paul J. Gerber, and Rick Ginsberg

Abstract. Definitions of learning disabilities typically include the perspectives of


professionals from educational, psychological, medical, and sociopolitical fields. De-
cision-makers in learning disabilities have rarely solicited the views of an important
population of individuals who live with this label, adults with learning disabilities.
This article presents responses from a sample of successful adults with learning dis-
abilities who were asked to define the term learning disabilities. In addition to a
number of constructs found in many existing definitions, responses include percep-
tions and conceptualizations that are only available from first-hand experience of
living with learning disabilities into the adult years. Even when these perceptions
evidence technical inaccuracies, their personal nature offers important insights into
the effects of learning disabilities throughout the lifespan. Future attempts to arrive
at a uniform definition of learning disabilities, especially in adulthood, should in-
clude or at least consider input from adults with learning disabilities.

Thirty years ago, Dr. Samuel Kirk coined a form definition, Hammill (1990) contended that
new term, learning disabilities, presumably in the field of learning disabilitiesis heading toward
an effort to help parents and professionals un- an emerging consensus. Through a comparison
derstand why some children of normal intelli- of 11 definitions that are prominent today or
gence experienced significant difficultylearning were previously,Hammill(1990) delineated nine
and performing in school. Apparently, Kirk's significant elements by which definitions could
(1962) explanation was not satisfactory to a be contrasted. The nine elements include (a) un-
wide range of professionals and other interested derachievement determination, (b) central ner-
parties who attempted to grapple with this phe- vous system (CNS) dysfunctionetiology, (c) pro-
nomenon. In the ensuing decades, therefore, at cess involvement, (d) presence throughout the
least 10 additionaldefinitionsachieved some de- lifespan, (e) specification of spoken language
gree of popularity(Hammill,1990). problems as potential learning disabilities, (f)
The issue of defining learning disabilitieshas specification of academic problems as potential
generated significant and ongoing controversy.
Part of this difficultylies in a kind of identity cri-
sis: Is the construct of learning disabilitiesan ed-
HENRY B. REIFF,Ph.D., is Assistant Profes-
ucational, psychological, or social-political con- sor of Education, Western Maryland College.
cern, or possibly some complex combination of
all of these concerns? Adding to this confusion, PAUL J. GERBER, Ph.D., is Professor of Spe-
education and psychology are low-consensus cial Education and Clinical Professor of
fields dealing with human behavior and its theo- Psychiatry, Virginia Commonwealth Univer-
retical constructs, of which learning disabilitiesis sity/Medical College of Virginia.
one (Reynolds, 1986). RICK GINSBERG, Ph.D., is Associate Profes-
In the midst of the debate to formulate a uni- sor of Education, University of South Carolina.

114 Learning Disability Quarterly

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learning disabilities, (g) specification of concep- determine the use of a particular definition,
tual problems as potential learning disabilities, which may have a profound impact on the life of
(h) specification of other conditions as potential an individualwith learning difficulties.
learning disabilities, and (i) allowance for the Decision-makers are often self-appointed
multihandicappingnature of learning disabilities. "representatives"of the learning disabled con-
Definitions that evidenced an agreement rate stituency. However, the participantsin the defi-
of 67% or greater on these elements were clus- nitional debates rarelysolicit the views of individ-
tered together. Hammill'ssubsequentanalysis re- uals who live with the label. This omission raises
vealed that considerable agreement exists some concern, especially in light of a paradigm
among the definitions on the nine elements and shift that focuses less on what professionals can
that the definitions generally fall into two clus- do for persons with disabilities and more on
ters. One cluster, comprising four lesser used what persons with disabilitiescan do for them-
definitions, focuses primarilyon disorders in the selves (Reiff & deFur, 1992). Consequently, it
learning processes; the other cluster, consisting may be appropriate for the field to listen to
of seven more currently popular definitions, these other voices in the quest for a valid and
tends to emphasize specific factors such as lan- widely acceptable definition.
guage and academic deficits. A continuing discussion on definitions is
In spite of such agreement, arguments over largely positive and perhaps necessary to pre-
theoretical constructs or conceptualizationhave vent the field from growing stagnant (Reynolds,
occupied considerable research in the past and 1986). However, although the dialectic may be
persist in recent literature.For example, Cruick- intellectuallyhealthy, the need for a resolutionto
shank (1975) voiced concern that many defini- the issue is becoming urgent. Silver (1988) ad-
tions did not conceptualize learning disabilities monished that the lack of a uniform definition
specifically as a function of perceptual deficits. limits the value of epidemological, clinical, basic,
In the view of other professionals, the most glar- and educational research. Soliciting the experi-
ing omission in defining learning disabilitiescen- ences of individuals with learning disabilities,
tered on social skill deficits (Interagency Com- that is, listening to the insiders'perspectives, not
mittee on LearningDisabilities,1987). only lends a criticaldimension to the discussion
Yet, other professionals turned their attention but should also be valuable in developing more
from what was excluded to criticallyexamining consensual conceptualizationsof the term. Addi-
elements traditionally included in most defini- tionally, the insiders'perspectives may be essen-
tions. For example, Siegel (1989) provoked sig- tial for understandingand defining learning dis-
nificant debate by questioning whether IQ abilitiesin adulthood.
should be used as part of the theoretical con- In attempting to define learning disabilitiesin
struct in defining learning disabilities.Some re- adulthood, a new set of problems emerges.
searchers countered Siegel's (1989) contention Hammill's(1990) assertion that the field is mov-
by offering social, historical,political, and practi- ing toward consensus on a uniform definition
cal reasons why the IQ test is of use to the applies only to childrenwith learning disabilities;
learning disabilitiesfield (Wong, 1989). none of the definitions that Hammill analyzed
Framinglearning disabilitiesin such pragmatic focuses specifically on the adult manifestations
concerns is not surprising,for the term has had of learning disabilities. Mellard(1990) reported
substantialimpact on educational policy regard- that the California Community College system
less of theoretical debate. In some ways, educa- designed a model to provide a clear definitionof
tors have used the term primarily to describe the learning disabilityconstruct for adults. The
students who did not "fit"into other exception- model emphasizes a persistent condition despite
alities (Mercer, King-Sears, & Mercer, 1990). instructionin standardclassroom situations.
Thus, the definitions of learning disabilitiesmay The definition has five components, three of
function simultaneously as theory and policy, which-IQ, processing, and discrepancy-are
thereby not only affecting the way learning dis- found, in one form or another, in most defini-
abilitiesare conceptualizedbut identificationand tions (Hammill, 1990). The unique components
placement procedures as well. The circumstan- include adaptive behavior and a measured
tial purposes of diverse decision-makers often achievement deficit in a specific skill including

Volume 16, Spring 1993 115


vocational areas. Mellard (1990) pointed out with learning disabilities to promote better un-
that "measuredachievement" (p. 79) refers to a derstandingof the term. The study concluded by
specific deficit, allowing an individualto be suc- emphasizing the importance of furtherresearch
cessful in other areas of functioning, a qualifica- into the perceptions of individualswith learning
tion that recalls what Hammill(1990) referredto disabilities.
as "intra-individual differences"(p. 80). Additionalresearch into individualperceptions
The National Institute for Handicapped Re- used definitions by nine adults with learning dis-
search (now National Institutefor DisabilityRe- abilities as a preface to ethnographic interviews
search and Rehabilitation)state-of-the-art adult with these subjects (Gerber & Reiff, 1991).
with learning disabilitiesconference in 1982 es- Rather than commenting directly on the defini-
tablished the development of a definition for tions, the authors accepted the responses and
adults with learning disabilitiesas a top priority. encouraged the reader to factor the subjects'
It is likely that the paucity of research on adults perceptions into the interviews and discussion.
with learning disabilitieshas impeded a realiza- The purpose of this study was to allow adults
tion of this goal. At present, the Rehabilitative with learning disabilitiesto speak for themselves.
Services Administration (RSA) has adopted a Nevertheless, professionals may be able to add
formal definition(RSA, 1989), which focuses on to the knowledge base by applying such data to
employment, avoids reference to academic diffi- the ongoing debate over definitions.
culties, and includes problems with social com- The experiences and perspectives of adults
petence and social maturityas potential learning with learning disabilities present a validation
disabilities. Otherwise, all other components measure that is subjective, yet unimpeachable.
(i.e., CNS dysfunction etiology, process involve- The necessarily subjectivecomponent of assess-
ment, and specification of specific problems) ing one's personal experiences represents an es-
have origins in other currentlyused definitions. sential element of the heterogeneity of learning
Thus, the framework for defining learning dis- disabilities. The National Joint Committee on
abilities in adulthood continues to be largely a Learning Disabilities (NJCLD)begins its defini-
theoretical or conceptual rather than an empiri- tion (NJCLD, 1988), lauded by Hammill (1990)
cal construct. After all, the database is primarily as being the best of currentlyused definitions,by
a collection of theoreticalperspectives. acknowledging that learning disabilitiesis a het-
Gerber (1990) expressed concern that so erogeneous group of disorders. Moreover, per-
much of programmingfor persons with learning sonal perceptions constitute a valid basis for
disabilities lacks empirical, field-tested founda- conceptualizing the functional implications of
tions. This type of concern suggests that the va- the disability,in some cases lending insights that
lidity of a framework for assessing definitions are unavailableto even the most astute outside
must itself be subject to an empirical basis for observer.
defining learning disabilities. In a review of longitudinaland follow-up stud-
One study that did employ this method was ies of adults with learning disabilities (Gerber,
based on interviews with 26 adolescents at a Reiff, & Ginsberg, 1988), we contended that the
residentialschool for children with severe learn- need exists to utilize "inside-out"research per-
ing disabilities (Schneider, 1984). The students spectives whereby individualsubjects would de-
tended to evidence limited conceptualizationsof scribe systemic components of learning disabili-
learning disabilitiesand to attributeproblems to ties in adulthood. Such qualitative approaches
their own lack of effort. Nevertheless, they un- provide a means to confirm or challenge conclu-
derstood several elements of traditionalformula- sions or assumptions generated by quantitative
tions. For example, many felt they were intelli- analyses. Miles and Huberman (1984) expressed
gent overall but deficient in certain specific the potential benefits of referringto the personal
abilities. Additionally,they implicitlysuggested a perceptions of adults with learning disabilitiesto
kind of exclusion clause, pointing out a number validatecurrentdefinitions:
of factors that they felt were not responsible for Qualitative data are attractive. They are a
their difficulties. source of well-grounded,rich descriptions and
As a result of these findings, Schneider (1984) explanations of processes in local contexts.
advocated the use of counseling with students With qualitative data one can preserve the

116 Learning Disability Quarterly


chronological flow, assess local causality, and spelling, mathematical abilities, perception, co-
derive fruitfulexplanations. Then, too, qualita- ordination, impulsivity,distractibility,hyperactiv-
tive data are more likely to lead to serendipi- ity, and attention span. The majorityof the po-
tous findings and to new theoretical integra- tential subjects had been identified as
tions; they help researchers go beyond initial demonstrating learning disabilities either in
preconceptions and frameworks.(p. 15) school or as adults. The screening instrumental-
The purpose of this article is to explore the lowed the researchersto compare the profiles of
perceptions of the construct of learning disabili- potential subjects who had no formal diagnosis
ties held by adultswith learning disabilities.First- to the profiles of individualspreviouslyidentified.
hand experience is vital for helping professionals In this way, the researchers excluded any indi-
in the field of learning disabilitiesunderstandand viduals who did not evidence characteristics of
appreciate the realitiesof livingwith learningdis- identifiablelearningdisabilities.
abilities. Such information provides a useful The screening process included collecting de-
yardstick for measuring current conceptualiza- mographic data (i.e., age, race, gender, educa-
tions, for one criterion of a definition's validity tion, income) as well as information about cur-
must be the abilityto reflect or correlatewith the rent occupation, job satisfaction, recognition
experiences of those who receive a label based attained in the field, and parents' occupational
on that definition. Furthermore, those insiders' levels. In order to determine the participants'
perspectives may provide a foundation for for- level of success, the researchers defined suc-
mulating a new definition that blends current cess-a subjective construct-across five vari-
theoreticalconstructswith first-handexperience. ables: income level, job classification (derived
from Duncan Sociometric Index [Reiss, 1961]),
METHOD education level, prominence in one's field, and
Subjects job satisfaction.
The subjects for this study participated in a Utilizingthe data from the screening, a panel
project investigating alterable patterns in em- of five experts in qualitativemethods rated can-
ployment success for moderatelyand highly suc- didates on each of the five criteria.Consensus of
cessful adults with learning disabilities (Gerber, the panel was necessary to assign the candidates
Ginsberg, & Reiff, 1990). To identify a target to either a moderate or a high success group.
population, the researchers solicited nomina- Through this process, 71 subjects, who evi-
tions from the National Network of Learning denced specific learning disabilities and had
Disabled Adults, the Orton Dyslexia Society, the achieved either moderate or high vocational suc-
Learning Disabilities Association (formerly cess, were selected from the 181 potential par-
ACLD), and a number of other related organiza- ticipants. The subjects came from 24 states and
tions throughout the country. Of the 241 per- Canada and represented more than 30 types of
sons nominated, the researchers determined occupations. Forty-eight males and 23 females
that 181 were eligible for screening into the par- comprised the sample; their ages ranged from
ticipant pool. 29-69, with an average age of 45 years. All had
To ascertain the presence of learning disabili- graduatedfrom high school; in addition, 14 had
ties, the researchers developed a screening in- bachelor's degrees, 19 had master's degrees,
ventory that provided information about how and 29 had a Ph.D. or M.D. Yearlyincomes var-
and when the learning disabilitieshad been iden- ied from just under $20,000 to considerably
tified and whether or not other disabling condi- more than $100,000. Table 1 summarizes the
tions (e.g., hearing or vision loss, physical dis- key characteristicsof the 71 subjects.
ability, or emotional condition) were more Procedure
significant than the learning disabilities. If any The investigation of successful adults with
other disabilityreceived a higher rating, the can- learning disabilitiesutilizedan in-depth interview
didate was excluded. process with each participant. Participants re-
Additionally,potential subjects self-rated on a sponded to open-ended questions designed to
7-point scale the severity of learning disabilities elicit both a comprehensive portrayalof the ex-
at school age and currentlyfor 12 characteris- perience of coping successfullywith learning dis-
tics: listening, speaking, reading, writing, abilitiesin adulthood and a retrospectiveview of

Volume 16, Spring 1993 117


Table 1
Key Subject Characteristics

Occupations Income Distribution Level of Education


Occupation #Subjects Annual Income ($) #Subjects Highest Degree Held #Subjects
Business 22 No answer 1 High school 8
Education 18 -10,000 3 Associate 1
Health 17 10-20,000 2 Bachelor 14
Science 5 20-30,000 3 Master 19
Law 4 30-40,000 7 Doctorate 29
Art 3 40-50,000 9 Total=71
Journalism 2 50-60,000 10
Total=71 60-75,000 11
75-100,000 3
100,000+ 22
Total=71

learning disabilities from childhood to the pre- tions. In defining the term learning disabilities
sent. Gerber, Ginsberg, and Reiff's (1992) re- several themes appeared, a number of which
port on the results of the project provides a are included in many current definitions;
broader context for understandingthe methods namely, (a) processing difficulties, (b) specific
and purposes of the interview procedure; the functional limitations, (c) underachievement de-
reader is encouraged to refer to this article for termination, and (d)learning disabilitiesas differ-
more detailed information. ences-a concern that most definitions pre-
Of particularrelevance to the present study, at clude. These four themes will form the basis for
the end of the interview, the interviewerasked presenting and discussingthe data.
each participantthe following question: Processing Difficulties
"We have sometimes addressed the issue of Of the 57 definitions offered by adults with
your disabilityin each of the sections, but now learning disabilities, 16 (i.e., 28%) focused on
I'd like to focus on your learning disabilities the concept of a processing deficit as the pri-
specifically. The feelings you share regarding mary explanation for learning difficulties. Most
your disability can have a significant impact used the specific term process to describe their
on others who may feel that they are the only functioning.
ones who are different. Let's talk a little about The followingquotationsillustrateways in which
your learning disabilities.There are many defi- the subjectsperceivedprocessingdifficulties:
nitions of learning disabilities.How would you "Any interruptionin the learning process that
define learning disabilities?" makes it difficult for that person to achieve
This stimulus question spawned responses of goals."
varying lengths and diverse levels of complexity. "Brainis not programmedto process informa-
Despite a wide array of sophistication about tion like most people's brains are pro-
learningdisabilitiesin the study group, all subjects grammed."
had their own definitionof learningdisabilities. "Not a learning disability;it's a processing dis-
ability."
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION "Probablya central nervous system condition
Fifty-seven of the 71 subjects offered defini- that interferes with the person's abilityto pro-

118 Learning Disability Quarterly


cess information." sense or perceive information to assimilate
"A breakdownin processing." that information and to spit it back out for a
"Definitely not sensory; interpretation and combination of neurological reasons, psycho-
perception process that is involved." logical reasons."
"An obstacle to processing information in the "Not able to learn in the conventional way be-
normal way." cause of a technical problem in their brain
"An inabilitybecause of naturalcauses with a that makes them unable to visually or orally
person to accomplish thought processes, remember or both."
speech and language processes, educational Similarities in these descriptions lie in terms
processes. such as "can't break stuff out," "breakingyour
"Inabilityto process information and utilize train of thoughts," "jumbled,"and "blocks."The
it." conceptual problems associated with these psy-
"Not mental retardation, higher IQ, process- chological processes are depicted as concentrat-
ing problem, you work hard and you fail." ing, attending, and remembering.Two of the re-
Most often, the subjectsreferredspecificallyto sponses alluded to an emotional overlay in the
problems with processing information.Addition- use of the term "psychological."
ally, some of their responses interwove other A criticalanalysis of the respondents' versions
concepts found in many currently used defini- of processing difficultiessuggests that even suc-
tions. One response directlycited a "centralner- cessful and intelligent adults cannot describe
vous system condition";another alludedto natu- what is going on inside their heads more clearly
ral causes, which may be interpreted,in context, than has been depicted in research and defini-
as referring to central nervous system dysfunc- tions. The adultsseem to find it difficultto clarify
tion. Use of the term neurological was not un- basic psychological processes. Professionals,
common across all definitions. Two responses too, have struggledwith this concept. Thus, the
evoked the exclusionary component of many NJCLD definition eliminated the term, partially
definitions; that is, they stated that learning dis- because its usefulness was tenuous.
abilities are "definitely not sensory" and "not Perhaps the confusion implicit in the re-
mental retardation." Only one statement re- sponses acts as a reminderthat a preoccupation
ferred to "average or higher IQ," although the with CNS etiology may be theoreticallyfascinat-
remark that learning disabilities make it more ing but of limitedvalue in practicalterms. Defini-
difficult"to achieve goals" conjures the concept tions of learning disabilitiesmay become more
of underachievementdetermination. meaningful through increased understandingof
Several definitions utilized a metaphorical ap- such issues as functional limitations and under-
proach to describe processing problems. These achievement-two areas that adults with learn-
descriptions offer a true insider's perspective ing disabilitiescan address directly.
and, in a sense, begin to operationalize, at least Functional Limitations
subjectively,the construct of psychological pro- Understandably,many subjects offered defini-
cesses: tions that described how learning disabilitiesaf-
"Physicalmanifestation of the brain malfunc- fected their lives in functional, rather than theo-
tions and its associated behavioralaspects, not retical, terms. In many ways, much of the
just the reduced, like dysgraphia, but also the struggle in developing workable definitions has
psychological adjustments that one has to centered on ways to operationalizethe term. An
make when one knows one can't break stuff enlarged understandingof functional limitations
out very well." may make conceptualizationsmore concrete as
"Someone who can't concentrate on more well as provide useful informationin the identifi-
than one thing at a time. Difficulttime break- cation of learning disabilities.
ing your train of thoughts, analyzing different Respondents' approach to describing how
things." learning disabilitieshave affected their lives re-
"Some areas of the brain of the neuropath- calls aspects of many definitions that point to
ways are jumbled, missing, in a mess, kind of the specification of spoken language, academic,
stretched." conceptual, or other problems as potential
"Blocks that occur in a person's ability to learning disabilities (Hammill, 1990). The vari-

Volume 16, Spring 1993 119


ability of their effects on functioning attests to same or even become worse (Gerber et al.,
the heterogeneous nature of learning disabilities. 1990).
Approximately 23% (n=13) of the subjects de- It may also be significant that, in spite of at-
scribed specific functionallimitationsimposed by tempts to focus on nonacademic issues in defini-
learning disabilities. Many subjects pinpointed tions of learning disabilitiesin adulthood, many
academic concerns, usuallyreading, writing, and of the respondents in this study clearlyalludedto
math: classroom settings. One adult, in particular,fo-
"Specific block in the attainment of academic cused on difficulty in school as the basis for
skillsthat is not accounted for by mental retar- defining learning disabilities:"People who have
dation and tends to be specific to reading, trouble functioningin a classroom, comprehend-
math skills." ing, trouble staying with it." Thus, regardlessof
"Inefficiencyin reading." the persistence factor, for some adults the most
"All kinds of problems like reading and writ- vivid realizationof learning disabilitiesremained
ing." in school.
"Difficulttime with written word, comprehen- Conceptual problems receive less explicit en-
sion, handling numbers...time factor...slow dorsement from definitions, possibly because
reader,poor decoding, poor writing." these difficulties may be subsumed under the
"Personwho's been diagnosed as having read- construct of process involvement. It is notewor-
ing, writing, spelling, auditory, or visual prob- thy that a few of the respondents captured the
lems." ideas of conceptual disorders by recapitulating
"Veryspecific like in reading or math when IQ the term itself; that is, difficultywith learning.
is normal or above." Additionally, one respondent commented on
"Individualdifficultyin reading and writing in "low IQ," an idea generally antitheticalto most
the accepted way." conceptualizationsof learning disabilities.Never-
Some responses centered on language deficits theless, many definitions do not address the
as depicting learning disabilities: generally held notion that persons with learning
"Lose meaning-inability to string words or disabilitiesare of average or above average intel-
syllablestogether." ligence. Therefore, it may be necessary for a
"A language disorder." definition to tackle this issue explicitly to avoid
A number of respondents captured the sense the confusion that learning disabilities may be
of a generic difficultywith learning, character- due to low intelligence.
ized by Hammill(1990) as conceptual problems: Interestingly, the adults in the present study
"Difficultywith learning." did not emphasize vocational or social difficul-
"Difficultyin learning in some area. Could be ties-the functional areas generally highlighted
general due to low IQ or specific like in definitionsof learning disabilitiesin adulthood
dyslexia." (cf., Mellard, 1990; RSA, 1989). The make-up
"Makesit more difficultfor you to understand of this particularsample may offer an explana-
or do something you should normally be able tion. These adults were uniformly successful in
to do." their vocational endeavors, and, to some extent,
Academic and language deficits tend to elicit in their social endeavors as well. Hence, their
the most agreement among currentlyused defi- personal experiences may not reflect the out-
nitions. The respondents' tendency to focus on comes of many other adultswith severe learning
these difficulties further validates that learning disabilities,who have struggledto find vocational
disabilitiesresult in specific functionallimitations and social satisfaction(Minskoff,Hawks, Steidle,
and that these specific problems persist in adult- & Hoffmann, 1989).
hood. At the same time, the subjects clearly indi-
These adults' reflections offer a significant re- cated specific problems in academic areas. How-
minder in ongoing attempts to formulate defini- ever, their vocational outcomes demonstratethat
tions for adulthood. Although some manifesta- specific limitations in areas such as math and
tions of learning disabilitieschange in response reading do not have to hinder success in adult-
to adult demands, the basic problems in areas hood. Apparently, they learned to compensate,
such as language and math may remain the cope, and achieve. Consequently, perhaps defi-

120 Learning Disability Quarterly


nitions of learning disabilities should include of areas, almost anything."
some type of qualification: Although specific "Disabilityother than the norm, whatever the
deficits associated with learning disabilities are norm is, that creates a limitationin an individ-
real and persistent, such deficits do not neces- ual with restrictionto not allow him to achieve
sarilypreclude achievement. his full potential."
Underachievement Determination "A difficulty, sometimes an inability, to
In spite of having made significant accom- achieve at one's potential."
plishments, a number of the adults in this study "Smarterthan can illustrateto others."
felt that they had been held back in some form These adults with learning disabilities recog-
by learning disabilities.Almost all definitions of nized the concept of discrepancy, and their per-
learning disabilities express the concept of un- sonal experiences, in a sense, lend credence to
derachievement-as either a manifestationof in- the idea that learning disabilitiesresult in a dis-
tra-individualdifferences (i.e., uneven patterns of crepancy between expected and actual achieve-
performance) or as a significantdiscrepancy be- ment. Yet, the responses do not seem to offer a
tween aptitude and achievement (Hammill, means for improvingthe way we operationalize
1990). Operationalizingthis concept, however, the discrepancy construct. Thus, the value of
has proven to be an elusive endeavor. For exam- first-hand experience may not lie in refining
ple, when McLeskey (1989) applied a statisti- technical aspects of identification procedures
cally determined severe-discrepancy formula to such as a severe discrepancyformula.
733 students identifiedas learning disabled, only The responses of the adults in this study un-
a slight majoritymanifested the discrepancy. It is earth, perhaps, a larger issue. Some persons
necessary to find a way to translate the experi- with learning disabilities obviously believe that
ence of feeling that one has not reached one's reaching or expressing their full potential pre-
potential into a meaningful and consistent sents a significant difficulty.Interestingly,none
method for identifying individualswith learning of the subjects specificallyused the term under-
disabilities. achiever, possibly because few of them could be
Only one subject offered a definition that fo- considered underachievers. Instead, their re-
cused on intra-individualdifferences: "Those ar- sponses tended to focus on the idea that learn-
eas in my life, academic, social, that are quite a ing disabilitieslimited the ability to reach one's
bit suppressed in relationship to the other abili- full potential. In this sense, the subjectsimplicitly
ties and functions in my life." Most constructs of suggested that they might have achieved to a
intra-individual differences view individual greater degree if they had not had learning dis-
strengths rathernarrowly,usuallyin terms of sig- abilities.
nificant differences between subject areas such However, it may be valid to ask, "Wouldthey
as math and reading. In contrast, the self-analy- really have achieved more if they did not have
sis presented by this subject offers a larger per- learning disabilities?"Many interviews indicated
spective that captures the diverse areas of func- that, in one way or another, learning how to
tioning in adult life (i.e., educational, vocational, deal with learning disabilitiesprovided the foun-
interpersonal, social/emotional, recreational, dation for success. Indeed, many of the subjects
daily living). felt that they were more determined, resilient,
Eleven percent (n=6) of the responses seemed goal-oriented, and creative because of their
to capture the concept of underachievement; learning disabilities.In a sense, they may have
these responses, by and large, emphasized the realized their full potential; they simply jour-
discrepancy construct ratherthan intra-individual neyed a differentroute to get to that destination.
differences: The finding that 11 % of these very successful
"Prevents one from developing one's poten- adults maintained that their achievement was
tial." not commensurate with their abilities may sug-
"Not being able to do something in the nor- gest an interpretationrather than a validationof
mal manner when the basic abilityis there." the discrepancyconstruct. Perhaps the stigma of
"Disabilitydoesn't affect your intelligence but having learning disabilities prompted these
affects your ability to perform sometimes as adults to overlook or undervalue their own
intelligentlyas you could; can affect a variety achievements. Responses recalling the discrep-

Volume 16, Spring 1993 121


ancy construct from individuals who have Other definitions explicitly dismissed the no-
achieved considerable success may suggest that tion of disability:
they continue to suffer from or even perseverate "Not a disability as long as you realize that
on messages saying that lack of academic you will have to work a little bit harder than
achievement diminished them as individuals. other people."
While it may be true that certain areas of aca- "Not learning disabled, it's learning different."
demic achievement have eluded them, equating "Normalvariationof learning, of how people
the realization of one's potential with academic go about learning and communicating. Word
achievement may reflect a sociopolitical value that should be gotten rid of. Ought to find a
rather than a valid constructfor defining a differ- new term."
ent kind of learning process. "Mind operates differently than the normal.
Learning Disabilities as Differences Does not mean it doesn't work right, just dif-
For some adults with learning disabilities,es- ferent."
pecially those who have experienced vocational Finally, some respondents felt that the term
success, discrepancy may be too narrow a con- was not only ill-conceived but misappropriated.
struct to describe the effects of learning disabili- Some specificallyfocused on poor teaching:
ties. In some cases, it may be more accurate to "Not a learning disabilitybut a teaching dis-
depict learning disabilitiesas a condition that ne- ability."
cessitates alternativeapproaches to the norm in "Teachingdisability."
order to reach full potential. Twelve of the sub- Speculation that learning disabilities may be
jects downplayed the construct of learning dis- related to poor teaching is not new. For exam-
abilities as a legitimate disability, perceiving in- ple, Hallahanand Kauffman(1988) noted that a
stead their difficultiesas individualdifferences. In number of theorists have contended that poor
other words, twice as many subjects rejected the teaching may result in the types of behaviors
notion of disabilityas accepted the concept of that are likelyto be identifiedas learning disabili-
discrepancy. Additionally,several subjects stated ties. In particular,Engelmann(1977) argued that
that their difficultiesresultednot from a disability ineffective teaching may account for up to 90%
per se but from ineffectiveteaching. of students identifiedwith learning disabilities.
As the term disability traditionallydenotes in- These subjects' histories lend credence to the
capability or a deprivation of mental strength notion that poor learning may be largely in the
(Morehead & Morehead, 1972), a rejection of mind of the beholder, or, more precisely, in the
this term by individuals who have overcome ineffectiveness of the teacher. After all, adult ex-
such limitations should not be surprising. Re- perience has clearly demonstrated to these sub-
sponses of this nature ranged from acknowledg- jects that they do have the ability to learn. In
ing inherent limitations to contending that the many cases, they found innovativeways to teach
label is erroneous, irrelevant, or socially obse- themselves. In other words, the ability to learn
quious. was always present; perhaps the knowledge of
Definitions that acknowledge some kind of dif- how to teach was absent. Hallahan and Kauff-
ficulty,but stress difference ratherthan disability, man (1988) submitted that many learning dis-
included: abilities could be avoided if teachers knew how
"Can'tlearn the way everyone else learns." to respond to diverse learning styles.
"Anythingthat gets in the way with the normal Responses that challenge the construct of a
process of learning, whatevernormal means." disabilityraise more than a rhetorical question.
"Learningdifferent. The capacity for learning Historically, debate centered on the "softness"
is the same as normal but the way they learn is of the phenomenon. To some extent, the field
differentand not normal." attempted to legitimatize the disabling process
"Activitiesthat are harderfor you than the nor- by popularizing the term hidden handicap,
mal person." largely as a response to those who doubted its
"Differentway of learning, having to learn in a veracity. The disabilitycould not be seen, but it
differentway, an unconventionalway." did impose functionallimitations,namely, in the
"Problem that you experience in a particular form of the ability/achievementdiscrepancyand
way. specific difficultiesin one or more areas related

122 Learning Disability Quarterly


to educationalperformance. ability/achievementdiscrepancyis real for them.
For adults, a number of definitions have Others felt they had realized their full potential.
shifted from functional limitationsto a focus on Further,in a number of cases, subjects credited
vocational and social issues. However, some of learning disabilitieswith giving them the neces-
the adults in this study did not feel that their sary drive and resourcefulnessto achieve. While
learning differences had held them back. Per- the characteristicsof learning disabilitieshad not
haps they had to work harder or use unconven- disappeared, their meanings and manifestations
tional methods to achieve; but ultimately, they had.
did not experience functional limitations. Their Perhaps the most obvious limitations of this
success does not invalidate the diagnosis of investigationare those endemic to qualitativere-
learning disabilities to describe their learning search. Quantitativedesigns allow for relatively
style, but it does question the conventional wis- straightforwardstatistical analyses of the data,
dom that persons with learning disabilities do which enable the researcher simply to reject or
not achieve to their potential. not reject the null hypothesis. Qualitativestud-
Limitations of the Study ies, on the other hand, in general must rely on
Although the respondents did identify central more subjective analyses. In this study, the re-
issues found in many definitions, their insights searchers made decisions, admittedlysubjective,
were often restrictedand sometimes erroneous, in order to clarifyor analyze the data. Our anal-
particularlywith regard to processing difficulties. yses are open to scrutiny; we cannot hide be-
Thus, one adult described processing difficulties hind what has been termed the "straw man of
as an inabilityto accomplish thought and other statistical significance" (Carver, 1978, p. 381).
processes-a contradictionin the sense that the Instead, the burden of qualitativeresearch is to
same person accomplished those very processes let the data speak for themselves. The reader
in providing the description. Yet, technically in- can then judge the merit of our analyses.
accurate conceptualizations can still provide a In this study, the data take the form of individ-
measure of insight. For example, the term psy- ual responses to an open-ended question. Some
chological was used loosely by participants, subjects chose not to respond. Others may have
seemingly as synonymous with emotional. Most given answers they thought were "correct."Still
definitions deal with emotional difficulties as a others may have had a personal agenda that
separate issue. Although this distinction may limited their ability objectively to express their
provide theoretical clarity (i.e., learning prob- experiences. Nevertheless, the presence of pat-
lems result from some inherent deficit related to terns or trends in the responses may act as a
cognitive processing rather than emotional mitigatingfactor for individualidiosyncrasies.
blocking), it may be unrealisticto separate emo- The skewed natureof the participantspresents
tional issues that are connected to difficultiesin yet another limitation.In a sense, many of them
learning. Moreover, recent research points to- may be representative of gifted individualswith
ward an interactionalperspective in understand- learningdisabilities-a group that is in need of its
ing the relationshipbetween learning disabilities own uniquedefinition(Vaughn,1989). Neverthe-
and other behavioral and emotional disorders less, the sample also represents a portion of
(Murphy& Hicks-Stewart,1991). adults with learning disabilities who are clearly
In examining the population of vocationally not gifted but have succeeded in spite of the
successful adults with learning disabilities, the odds. In either case, their success represents a
meaning of functional limitations may become significantconcern. Their perceptions are bound
hazy. Admittedly, many of the subjects in this to be differentfrom those of adultswith learning
study had used and continued to use less than disabilitieswho have not been successful,particu-
conventional methods to achieve their success, larlywith regard to functionallimitations,under-
but such approaches do not necessarily diminish achievement determination,and learningdisabili-
or tarnish the extent of their achievements. ties as differencesratherthan deficits.
Are these individuals functionally limited? Finally, the selection process located only a
Some responded that they felt they would have sample of successful adultswith learning disabili-
done even better if they had not had learning ties, necessarily precluding individualswho did
disabilities; perhaps at some level, the not wish to discuss their learning disabilities.Ad-

Volume 16, Spring 1993 123


ditionally, the sample included only adults who field often based their definitions more in medi-
were in the networks utilized for the study. cal constructssuch as central nervous system eti-
Therefore, furtherresearch is necessary to deter- ology and processing difficulties,whereas some
mine their representativeness and to answer of those who termed learning disabilities as
other questions raised in this discussion of limita- teaching disabilities had been teachers them-
tions. selves.
The results of this study suggest that in future
CONCLUSIONS attempts to consolidate a definition of learning
Specific issues that emerged in the results and disabilities,especially in adulthood, professionals
discussion section deserve concluding com- and policy-makersshould incorporate the direct
ments. Although many professionals in the field and personal experiences of adultswho live with
have raised legitimate concerns about including the condition. Otherwise, constructsare reduced
psychological processing deficits in definitions, to presumptions lacking a true empirical base.
28% of the subjects conceptualized learning dis- The voices of successful adults with learning dis-
abilities in terms of processing difficulties. The abilitiesare essential for understandingwhat can
personal nature of the responses suggests that be accomplished and which kinds of approaches
many of these individuals felt or believed that lead to success; in contrast, traditionalperspec-
their problems with learning were caused by tives have focused largely on what could not be
some processing dysfunction in the brain. For achieved. It is essential that conceptualizations
persons with learning disabilities,the notion of of learning disabilitiesrecognize the possibilities
psychological processing deficits is a little like for significantachievement.
jazz-hard to define but easy to recognize. Per- The subjectsin this study present myriadview-
haps another implication for professionals is points; hence no single synthesized definition
that, instead of dismissingpsychological process- can fully reflect all perspectives presented. Yet,
ing as unwieldy, ways to make this construct implications for a definition of learning disabili-
meaningfulmust be identified. ties in adulthood do arise from these data. With
The perceptions of adultswith learning disabil- the inherent shortcomings of this task clearly in
ities make significantcontributionsto the contin- mind, we propose the following operational def-
uing attempt to reach a definition of learning inition culled from the experiences of one spe-
disabilities that will gain widespread support. cific sample of vocationallysuccessful adultswith
The degree of overlap between the personal ex- learning disabilities:
periences of adults with learning disabilitiesand Learning disabilitiesin adulthood affect each
the constructs of many current definitions sug- individualuniquely. For some, difficultieslie in
gests how far researchers and theorists have only one specific functional area; for others,
come in conceptualizinglearning disabilities. problems are more global in nature, including
Furthermore,divergence within this sample of social and emotional problems. For many,
adults with learning disabilities parallels differ- certain functionalareas of adult life are limited
ences among theoretical perspectives. In the compared to other areas. Adults with learning
same way that differences in theoretical, social, disabilitiesare of average or above average in-
and philosophical perspectives result in diverse telligence, but intelligence oftentimes has no
conceptualizations of learning disabilities, this relation to the degree of disability. Learning
sample proffereddefinitionsthat were driven not disabilities persist throughout the lifespan,
only by personal outlook but by the professional with some areas improving and others wors-
orientations of those who were interviewed.The ening. Specific deficits associated with learn-
most strikingcommonality of professional orien- ing disabilitiesare real and persistent and may
tation is the success factor, but the vocational pose significantdifficultiesin vocation and ca-
and career identities account for differences in reer. Nevertheless, such deficits do not neces-
conceptualizations as well. In other words, the sarily preclude achievement, and in some
specific occupations of the individual subjects cases, may have a positive relationship with
tended to color their perspectives on how they achievement. In almost all cases, learning dis-
viewed the effects and meaning of learning dis- abilities necessitate alternative approaches to
abilities. For example, individualsin the medical achieve vocational success.

124 Learning Disability Quarterly


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ing students with learning disabilitiesin California's Requests for reprints should be addressed to: Henry
community colleges. Learning Disabilities Focus, B. Reiff, Thompson Hall, Western MarylandCollege,
5. 75-90. 2 College Hill, Westminster,MD 21157-4390.

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