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National Service and Inclusion Project

Inclusion: The active engagement of people with disabilities as service members in all levels of national and community service

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Learning Disabilities: What National and Community Service Organizations Should Know

Although awareness about learning disabilities (LD) has grown over the last decade, many people still have questions regarding these "non-apparent" disabilities. In the spirit of increasing inclusion in service programs, we offer these basics about LD and accommodation ideas service members can use.

Research shows that LD is neurologically based and persists across a person's lifespan. Contrary to previous thinking, LD is not the same as mental retardation. People with LD have a wide range of abilities and deficits. LD is not due to:

Some Types of LD

[Adapted from the Job Accommodation Network.]

Specific Learning Disability: A disorder in one or more of the processes involved in understanding or using language, either spoken or written. It may appear as an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do math. This category includes conditions such as perceptual disabilities, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.

Dyslexia: Deficits in visual, auditory, or motor processing that interfere with reading. Characters may appear jumbled or reversed. Entire words or strings of letters may be unrecognizable.

Dysgraphia: Deficits in writing, which may include lack of organization, clarity, unity, fragmentation of written concepts, mechanical errors, reversals, transpositions, and omissions of letters or words. Spelling may be poor, handwriting may be illegible, and written ideas may be disorganized and incomprehensible.

Dyscalculia: Difficulty with numbers or remembering facts over a long period of time. Some people have spatial problems, such as difficulty aligning numbers into proper columns. Some persons may reverse numbers and have difficulty in mathematical operations.

Identifying LD

A debate is currently active within the field. The traditional way of diagnosing LD is to look at discrepancies in a person's ability versus their achievements. However, current thinking is moving away from using that factor as the sole identification source. Instead, use multiple sources to identify LD:

LD at Work and in National Service

[Source: Ellen Rothman, Lesley College in Cambridge, the former director of a program called "Thresholds," a program within the university that works with people with severe LD.]

LD confers both challenges and strengths.


On the negative side, people with LD must handle not only skill deficits but also secondary factors. For instance, people may interpret someone with LD as being lazy or uninterested in the task at hand, or as not trying hard enough. Socially, something as common as making small talk can be difficult for someone who has a language-processing disability. Emotionally, having LD can be disorienting. Sometimes people feel out of the loop in group situations or frustrated when they have difficulty conveying what they know. If the disability wasn't identified until adulthood, the person may have low self-esteem stemming from years of wondering if they were stupid.


However, LD also confers advantages given all that work that the person may have had to do through life. Managing LD allows people to develop compensatory strategies that serve them well in jobs and service positions. For instance, many people with LD have strong self-discipline from years spent keeping themselves on track.

Trends in LD

[Adapted from: Block, L. and Lendman, C. (2003). Trends in learning disabilities: Embracing the future. Presentation to Learning Disabilities Association Conference. Chicago, IL.]

Increase in multiple disabilities
Experts are seeing an increase in the number of people with LD who are diagnosed with additional disabilities, such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or psychiatric disabilities. This will likely lead to a better understanding of people's support needs, which will impact school, work, and service.

Identification process
As previously mentioned, identification strategies are changing from the ability vs. achievement model to a multiple-source technique.

Increase in technology
As technology use burgeons in the disability field, people are finding tools for people with LD. A lot of technology that was originally designed for people who are blind or visually impaired is useful for people with learning disabilities. For instance, many computer programs read text off a computer screen, such as ReadPlease, which also highlights text on the screen. A program called Inspiration allows a user to organize information in both visual flowcharts and outline form.

Universal design in instruction
"Universal design" means designing environments so that the largest number of people possible can function without individual accommodations. Recently, the concept has been applied to instruction and work, examining how they either welcome or block people with disabilities. Put simply, when presenting information it's best to use as many modalities as possible-writing, presentations, computers, hands-on tasks-to convey material and allow people to show what they know.

Some Accommodation Strategies

[Adapted from the Job Accommodation Network.]

If a service member has difficulty reading print from paper copies...

If a service member has difficulty communicating with co-workers or supervisors...

Concentration can be affected by audible or visual distractions in or near a person's work area. If a service member has difficulty concentrating on detail...

If a service member has difficulty remembering tasks or sequences...

Sometimes people feel uneasy about disclosing hidden disabilities. Service organizations should make it clear that accommodations are available for people with LD. There's no reason to lose a potential service member when their abilities could help a program grow.


Technology and universal design

Adapted by Danielle Dreilinger from a presentation by Richard Allegra, Associate Executive Director, Association on Higher Education and Disability.

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©The National Service Inclusion Project (NSIP) is a training and technical assistance provider on disability inclusion. NSIP partners with the Association on University Centers on Disability, National Council on Independent Living, Association on Higher Education and Disability and National Down Syndrome Congress to build connections between disability organizations and all CNCS grantees, including national directs, to increase the participation of people with disabilities in national service.