Learning Difficulty or Disability? | ExpatWoman.com

Learning Difficulty or Disability?

Discussing the differences between a learning difficulty and learning disability can be a complex issue.

Posted on

23 June 2015

Last updated on 13 July 2017
Learning Difficulty or Disability?
There are no definitive, consensual interpretations or definitions of the terms "learning difficulty" and "learning disability". It's no surprise then that different organisations and local authorities adopt their own definitions of the terms. 

Nonetheless, as a generalisation: a learning difficulty can be an obstacle, be it learning or emotional that affects a person's ability to learn, get along with others and follow convention. Whereas a learning disability is something that incapacitates an individual's ability to understand information, learn skills and cope independently. 

Regardless, as mentioned, the differences between the two is complex so here's a guide to the more common types that can transcend the two. 


Affects reading and related language-based processing skills. 
The severity of dyslexia can vary from person to person, but can affect reading fluency, decoding, reading comprehension, recall, writing, spelling and sometimes speech. It's a learning disorder that can exist along with other related difficulties, too. Individuals who have dyslexia may read slowly and painfully, may have difficulty ordering letters and may experience trouble with spelling, recalling words and with the written language among others. Strategies to assist those with dyslexia vary from providing a quiet area for activities like reading and answering comprehension questions, using audiobooks, using books with large print and spaces and to even implementing multi-sensory teaching mothods.

Auditory Processing Disorder (APD)

Adversely affects how sound that travels unimpeded through the ear is processed and interpreted by the brain.
Those who have APD have difficultly recognising subtle differences between sounds in words, even if the sounds are loud and clear enough to beheard. They may also have difficulty being able to tell where the sound is coming from, make sense of the order of sounds or have difficulty blocking out competing background noises. Individuals who have APD may find themselves distracted by background sounds and/or noises, may unintentially ignore others if they're engrossed and may struggle to stay focused on or remember a presentation or lecture. There are a few strategies that can be implemented to aid those who suffer from APD, including showing rather than explaining, varying pitch and tone of voice and allow additional seconds to allow for response and "think time". 

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Affects a person's ability to understand numbers and learn math facts.
People who have Dyscalculia may show difficulty understanding concepts of place value, quantity, number lines, positive and negative values as well as difficulty understanding and completing word problems and sequencing information and/or events. They may struggle with mathematical problems, operations and equations; including understanding fractions, making change and handing money as well as adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing. Strategies known to assist individuals who have this disorder include the use of diagrams, peer assistance, graph paper, coloured pencils, drawing pictures as well as the use of rhythm and music to teach math.


Affects a person's handwriting ability and fine motor skills.
Someone with this learning disorder may have problems including illegible handwriting, inconsistent spacing, poor spatial planning on paper, poor spelling and difficulty composing writing as well as thinking and writing coincidingly. Methods to aid people with Dysgraphia include th use of word processor, oral exams, tape recorders for lessons, use of a note taker and simply allow use of wide rule paper and graph paper. Writing aids such as pencil grips have also proved useful to most, too.

Language Processing Disoder (LPD)

Affects attached meaning to sound groups that form words, sentences and stories.
This type of disorder relates primarily to the processing of language. LPD can affect expressive language of what a person says, and/or they're receptive language, which controls how they understand what others say. Symptoms of LPD include difficulty in gaining meaning from spoken language, they may exhibit poor written output and/or poor reading comprehension and may find it difficult to express their thoughts in verbal form. Individuals who have LPD may become frustrated by having a lot to say, but no way to say it. To support them, you can encourage them to speak slowly and clearly with simple sentences to share information, refer them to a speech pathologist, allow a tape recorder for note taking, use visualisation techniques and even practice story mapping! 

Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Deficit

Affects the understanding of information that a person sees, or the ability to draw or copy. 
This is a common characteristic found in individuals who have learning disorders such as Dysgraphia (see above) or NVLD (see below). Those with this deficit may struggle to see subtle differences in shapes or printed letters, may lose their place frequently, struggle with cutting, they may hold a pencil too tightly or even have poor eye/hand coordination. Symptoms also include reversals (such as seeing b for d, p for q...), complaints of eyes hurting or itching, complaints of blurry print while reading, closes one eye while working and may also misaligh letters. Assistance for those with this deficit are very useful; support should avoid grading their handwriting in assignments, provide alternatives for written assignments, implement the use of pencil grips or specially designed stationary, allow the use of a computer or word processor, use large print books and even allow them to use audiobooks. 

Learning disorders

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Affects focus, attention and behaviour and can make learning challenging.
While ADHD is not commonly considered as a learning disability, it is a disorder that can exist within individuals alongside another disorder, and thus with the two conditions interacting can make learning extremely challenging for those with it. The principle characteristics of ADHD are inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Professionals tend to use three subtypes when recognising ADHD; hyperactive/impulsive type; predominantly inattentive type (sometimes called ADD); and the combined type. 


Problems with movement and coordination, language and speech. 
Individuals who may have Dyspraxia will show signs of difficulty in muscle control, causing issues with movement and coordination, language and speech, which in turn can affect learning. Although this is not categorised as a learing disability, the disorder can exist alongside Dyslexia, Dyscalculia or ADHD. Symptoms include poor balance and clumsiness, difficulty with motor planning, poor hand-eye coordination, weakness in ability to organise, possible sensitivity to touch and may be irritated by tight, rouch or itchy clothing. Ways in which you can aid someone with Dyspraxia include' verbal prompts for physical contact, avoid touching from behind or too close, providing a quiet place for testing, silent reading or work that requires great concentration, warn teh student when bells will ring, whisper when working 1-to-1 with a child or potentially refer the child for occupational therapy or sensory integration training.

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Executive Functioning

Affects planning, organisation, strategising, attention to details and managing time and space. 
This is an inefficiency in the cognitive management systems of the brain that affects a variety of neuropsychological processes such as planning, organisation and so on. Although it is not identified as a learning disability, it is a disorder that shows different patterns of weakness that coincide with aspects of other learning disorders in individuals with other learning disabilities or ADHD.

Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities (NVD/NVLD)

Has trouble interpreting nonverbal cues liek facial expressions or body language and may have poor coordination.
This is a disorder which is usually characterised by a major discrepancy between an individual's higher verbal skills and weaker motor, visual-spatial and social skills. A person with NVLD pay have trouble recognising nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and/or body language. They may display poor psycho-motor coordination, like clumsiness and bumping into things, they may struggle to complete fine motor skills like tying shoe laces, writing and using scissors. Those with NVLD may also make a very literal translation of things, among many others. Methods of helping those with NVLD include rehearsing scenarios, minimising transitions, verbal cues, verbally pointing out differences, transitions and connections, answering their questions, allowing them to abstain from participating in activities that may prove overwhelming and even implementing a modified schedule or creative program for them. 


Affects storing and later retrieving information or getting information out.
There are three types of memory that are important when it comes to learning; working memory, short term memory and long term memory. Working memory refers to the ability to hold pieces of information to build concepts or full thoughts, short term emory is the active process of storing and retaining information for a limited amount of time and long term memory refers to information that is stored over a long period of time. 

Since the above difficulties are often recognised during a child's school years, there is room to give them the appropriate support and intervention to ensure that they can achieve success in school, at work, in relationships and within the community.