Special Education

Poll: Learning Disabilities Are Often Misunderstood

By Christina A. Samuels — October 06, 2010 3 min read

About 80 percent of Americans believe the statement “people with learning disabilities are just as smart as you and me” to be generally accurate.

But a majority of the public also link learning disabilities with mental retardation and autism, and more than 50 percent agree that learning disabilities are “often caused by the home environment children are raised in.”

The poll, which suggests that there’s a stigma associated with learning disabilities even as people generally agree disabilities can be overcome with proper instruction, was commissioned by the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation of New Haven, Conn., which makes grants to support children with learning disabilities.

“ ‘Mixed bag’ is an accurate way to put this,” said Stewart J. Hudson, the foundation’s president. “I don’t think people have a very clear idea of what dyslexia and other learning disabilities are.”

The results came from a telephone survey conducted in May and June of 1,000 adults over the age of 18, with additional samples of 700 adults with children under 18 living in the home and 700 educators. For the general public, the poll has a margin of error of three points, and weighting was applied to make the sample represent the U.S. adult population.

This is the fourth time that the foundation has supported a poll of general attitudes related to learning disabilities, and findings suggest some growing awareness of the condition.

Majority of Parents And Public Blame Home Environment For Children's Learning Disability

Percentage who agree learning disabilities are often caused by the home environment children are raised in.

Source: Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation’s GfK Roper Poll, “Public Attitudes about Children with Learning Disabilities”

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Children with “specific learning disabilities” make up the largest portion, about 40 percent, of 6.6 million students who receive services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The federal law defines specific learning disabilities as neurological disorders that impair a person’s ability to do tasks such as read, write, spell, or do math, but are not tied to overall cognitive ability. After a long upward climb, the number of children classified as having a learning disability is on the decline.

The polls, which have been conducted every five years since 1995, show that respondents are increasingly likely to say that they have heard or read “a lot” about learning disabilities. About 38 percent of the general public agreed with that statement in this year’s poll, compared with 31 percent in 2004.

Lingering Misperceptions

More people also agree with the statement that “all children learn in different ways:” about 79 percent agreed with that statement this year, compared with 70 percent in 2004. And most people in the survey—92 percent—believed it was completely or somewhat accurate that children with learning disabilities process words and information differently.

But despite a general perception among respondents that they have heard a lot about learning disabilities and understand the nature of learning differences, many were also willing to chalk learning disabilities up to laziness or the home environment. Many people also linked learning disabilities to other disorders, such as blindness or deafness.

For example, 76 percent of people surveyed this year correctly identified dyslexia as a learning disability. But about 80 percent also linked learning disabilities with intellectual disabilities (referred to as “mental retardation” in the poll); 69 percent with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; and 75 percent with autism.

Studies have found that while learning disabilities often coexist with other disabilities like ADHD and autism, having a learning disability does not mean that a student has an additional disorder.

About 51 percent surveyed this year agree strongly or somewhat with the statement that “sometimes learning disabilities are really just the result of laziness.” The result is down from 57 percent who agreed strongly or somewhat with that statement in the 2004 poll.

James H. Wendorf, the executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities in New York, said the term “learning disability” can be used loosely, which may be leading to misunderstanding among the public about what learning disabilities really are.

“But I would affirm that ‘learning disability’ needs to be the term of record,” Mr. Wendorf said.

Mr. Wendorf said the poll results offer several entry points for the learning disabilities community to get involved with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. For example, the poll found general support for early intervention services, and agreement that digital media would be helpful in teaching children with learning disabilities. Programs that support those efforts are important to promote through federal policy, Mr. Wendorf said.

“This underscores how important it is for the LD community to be front and center for the authorization of ESEA,” he said. “Access to the general curriculum needs to be enshrined in the [act]. That’s the main takeaway.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2010 edition of Education Week as Poll: Learning Disabilities Are Often Misunderstood

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