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What's a Learning Disability, Anyway? Most Americans Confused

Guest blog post by Jaclyn Zubrzycki

Can glasses treat a learning disability? Can poor diet cause one? Many Americans are confused about what, exactly, learning disabilities are, how prevalent they are, and how they are lived with and dealt with in the law and classroom, according to a new survey of 2,000 Americans by the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

The NCLD has published the results of its first survey of Americans' perceptions about learning disabilities, and the findings indicate that there is a good deal of confusion. "While great strides have been made in awareness of learning disabilities, these findings underscore the critical need for education," said James H. Wendorf, the executive director of NCLD, in a press release.

The executive summary, which has more details, will be posted on the NCLD's website later today, but here are a few key findings:


  • Forty-three percent of Americans incorrectly think that learning disabilities are correlated with IQ.
  • Twenty-two percent incorrectly believe learning disabilities can be caused by too much screen time; 31 percent believe a cause is poor diet; and 24 percent believe childhood vaccinations can be blamed.
  • More than 66 percent of parents want more information about learning disabilities than schools currently provide.
  • Thirty percent admitted to making casual jokes about having a learning disability when someone makes a reading, writing or mathematical mistake.

Most survey participants could identify dyslexia as a learning disability, though only 80 percent could accurately define it. But learning disabilities like dysgraphia (which affects spelling, handwriting, and coherence), dyscalculia (which affects math comprehension), and dyspraxia (which affects motor skills) were less familiar to many Americans.

The finding that 24 percent of the survey respondents thought vaccinations could cause learning disabilities is especially unsettling in the context of new information about just how many kids are not getting vaccinated.

"This shows how much work there is to do," Wendorf said in an interview. He said that for teachers, perhaps the most important takeaway is that there is a often a gap between what they know and what parents know—especially for parents who are "on the front end of the journey" of learning about learning disabilities.

Wendorf said he was heartened, however, by the fact that many parents felt that there was more they could do to help their kids—75 percent of parents of kids with learning disabilities agreed with that statement, according to the survey.

If you're curious about how public perception stacks up against reality, you can compare some of these statistics with information in this fact sheet from the NCLD. The fact sheet clarifies, for instance, that it is not legal to ask about whether or not a potential employee has a learning disability at a job interview. It turns out that a full third of respondents had believed this was legal.

Previous studies of public understanding of learning disabilities, such as this 2010 Roper poll, which my colleague Christina Samuels wrote about here, have also indicated widespread confusion.

The NCLD timed the release of these results to align with the launch of its new website, LD.org. Look for the executive summary and information about the report on the website later today.

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