Specific Learning Disabilities
What IDEA Says
IDEA's definition of specific learning disability remains unchanged since 1975.
Specific Learning Disability
''(A) IN GENERAL.–The term 'specific learning disability' means a disorder in 1 or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations."
''(B) DISORDERS INCLUDED.–Such term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia."
''(C) DISORDERS NOT INCLUDED.–Such term does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage."
All of the requirements included in IDEA for evaluations, eligibility determinations, individualized education programs, and educational placements apply to students suspected of having a specific learning disability (see Part B, Section 614, Evaluations, Eligibility Determinations, Individualized Education Programs, and Education Placements).
In addition, IDEA provides local education agencies with alternative methods to use in identifying children with learning disabilities.
First, in determining whether a child has a specific learning disability, the LEA is not required to take into consideration whether a child has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability in oral expression, listening comprehension, written expressions, basic reading skill, reading comprehension, mathematical calculation, or mathematical reasoning. In hearings related to the reauthorization of IDEA, Congress found that:
"There is no evidence that the IQ–achievement discrepancy formulas can be applied in a consistent and meaningful (reliable and valid) manner. In addition, this approach has been particularly problematic for students living in poverty or culturally and linguistically different backgrounds, who may be erroneously viewed as having intrinsic intellectual limitations when their differences on such tests really reflect lack of experience or educational opportunity."
Second, IDEA also indicates that, in determining whether a child has a specific learning disability, a local education agency may use a process that determines if a child responds to scientific, research–based intervention as a part of the evaluation procedures used to determine if the child is a child with a disability. Generically, this is known as response to intervention (RTI).
The bill includes a special rule for eligibility determination to provide that a lack of appropriate scientifically based reading instruction, lack of instruction in math, or limited English proficiency cannot be the determinant factor for deciding whether the child is a child with a disability.
In Congressional hearings related to IDEA, Congress stated that:
"The Committee encourages local educational agencies to provide direct services, especially scientifically based literacy instruction, and speech [–language pathology] services where appropriate, to students served under this section to remedy any reading deficiencies that the students may have and to adequately assess and evaluate the skills of these students. The Committee believes that the provision of these services and the use of the variety of evaluation and assessment methods that accompany the provision of scientifically based literacy instruction will help differentiate between students who have different learning styles and students that have disabilities, especially learning disabilities. The Committee has heard experts discuss the difference between a reading difficulty and a reading based learning disability, and encourages local educational agencies to take careful steps to make these determinations with their students. The Committee reminds local educational agencies that a child with a reading difficulty cannot be identified as a child with a disability if the determinant factor is their reading difficulty. However, children with reading–based learning disabilities can, and should, be appropriately identified as disabled."
Implications for ASHA Members
Based on policy and procedure established by the LEA, speech–language pathologists involved in determining whether a child has a specific learning disability are not required to take into consideration whether a child has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability in oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skill, or reading comprehension. As an alternative to using the IQ–achievement discrepancy model, local education agencies can establish a process to determine if a child has a specific learning disability that finds out if a child responds to scientific, research based instruction (response to intervention).
A RTI model would be designed to ensure that children who are indicating a likelihood of failing in the early grades and being identified as having a specific learning disability receive scientific, research–based intervention as soon as possible. The eligibility for special education services would focus on the children who, even with these services, are not able to be successful. The focus of RTI is on responding to the instructional challenges caused by the suspected disability, not on giving tests to document the failure of the student. Local education agencies may establish an early intervening [see Title I, Part B, Section 613, paragraph (f)] or pre–referral program to provide early intervention services to students and accompany those services with rigorous evaluation methods and curriculum–based assessments to measure the progress of the child. Through the application of high quality instruction, delivered by well–trained individuals, local educational agencies will be able to differentiate between children that have different learning styles and children that have disabilities.
What ASHA is Doing
ASHA is a member of the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD) and is involved in developing a document on response to intervention that includes information on the structure and components of an RTI program; implementation issues including resources needed, personnel competencies and training; parent participation, and current research.
What Members Should Do
LEAs may develop a scientific, research–based intervention (response to intervention) or early intervening program that may be used to determine if a child has a specific learning disability. Speech–language pathologists must be involved in developing these programs to ensure that students with a speech or language impairment are receiving an appropriate education in a timely manner.
If an LEA continues to require the use of an IQ–achievement discrepancy formula to determine if a child has a specific learning disability, the speech–language pathologist should work with other special education and related services personnel in the LEA to provide information on why the formula should not be used as the sole means of determining if a child has a specific learning disability.
Data indicate that 80% of students identified as having a learning disability have a language disorder. Therefore, for all children suspected of having a learning disability, the speech–language pathologist should ensure that the child receives a speech and language assessment to determine the absence or presence of a speech or language impairment.
Reference: P.L.108–446, Title I, Part A, Section 602 Definitions, paragraph (30), and Part B, Section 614, subparagraph (b)(5)(A)(B)(C) and (6)(A)(B).