The tem Specific Learning Disability (SLD): Tracing the Historical Evolution and confusion

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The tem Specific Learning Disability (SLD): Tracing the Historical Evolution and confusion

Dr. Renu Malaviya,
Associate Prof, Deptt. Of Education,Lady Irwin College    (University of Delhi)

 The evolution of definitions of LD can be traced to the turn of the last century and is closely linked concepts of organically based behavioural disorders.  The concept of LD arose from observations of children who were hyperactive and impulsive; it was often presumed that the cause of these unexpected behaviour disorders was constitutional in origin. Thus, these children were described with terms such as organic driveness syndrome, minimal brain injury,   (Doris, 1993; Rutter, 1982; Satz & Fletcher, 1980)
Way back in the 18th and the 19th century, children with learning disabilities were often diagnosed and considered to have “minimal brain dysfunction”. Further testing would indicate that the children tended to show some neurological difficulties. Yet these neurological difficulties seem to vary from child to child and in unpredictable ways. The experts of that era realized that there appeared to be no predictable structure to these neurological difficulties. Attempts at correlations with reference to the size of the brain, pattern of blood flow to the brain, nerve impulse to the brain and so on were studied. Yet no consistent structures were indentified. Sometimes the diagnosis would indicate, perceptual deficits’. Yet attempts to improve on the eye-hand coordination or on the visual scanning skills would not work. All this did leave the scientific world a little perplexed.
Terms such as “ minimum brain dysfunction”, “ stephosymbolia” ( reversal of letters), hyperactive and impulsive, organic driveness syndrome and so on were extensively being used for these children. (Doris, 1993; Rutter, 1982; Satz & Fletcher, 1980)
In 1963 Samual Kirk at Chicago coined the term “learning disability”. (1962, cited in Streissguth, Bookstein, Sampson, & Barr, 1993, p.144). He urged the scientific community to throw away the other previously used terminologies. The term learning disability had its advantages:
·         It was a term which parents and teachers could understand
·         It moved the concepts out of the realm of only neurology and medicine towards the field of education.
·         Now the focus could be more towards the issues related to information and language processing.
·         The educators begin to work upon finding special education techniques.
According to Samuel Kirk, (1962):
‘A learning disability refers to a retardation, disorder, or delayed development in one or more of the processes of speech, language, reading, spelling, writing, or arithmetic resulting from a possible cerebral dysfunction and/or emotional or behavioral disturbance and not from mental retardation, sensory deprivation, or cultural or instruction factors.’
 [Kirk, S. A. (1962). Educating exceptional children. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. (p. 261).]
As the term gained rapid acceptance, it facilitated another important move. The  establishment of the term LD ( Learning Disability) as a special education category, enabled children with LD to be included in being provided special  services related to education and beyond.  As of earlier they were excluded from the special services as their learning characteristics did not correspond to existing categories.  This in itself was a major step in the perspectives related to this disability.
In 1963, Samuel Kirk addressed a gathering of anxious parents in Chicago, (Streissguth, Bookstein, Sampson, & Barr, 1993) at which for the first time used publicly the term learning disabilities to describe the children. He stated at the gathering
Dyslexics are a specific group of children, adolescents and adults who have problems in learning. These problems are generally in the area of reading, writing, spellings and mathematics. A learning disability is found across all ages and in all socio-economic classes. It is not a-typical of mental retardation as is mistaken by many people; in fact the IQ scores of these children can be very high.
At the end of 1950’s and early 1960’s the need to focus on, ‘Education for all” started to emerge in Great Britain and the United States of America in the 1960s. At that time the difficulty that children were facing with learning in the school system began to attract the attention of educationist and psychologist seriously. As the momentum of getting each and every child into school increased, the number of ‘intelligent’ and “able bodied” children, who were unable to cope with learning in school especially with reading, writing and mathematics also increased. These children were otherwise bright, fairly articulate and had no sensory or visual handicap.
As “Education for All” gained momentum in Great Britain,  experience as well as effective school teachers and principals observed that their were children who otherwise appeared bright, were articulate and generally appeared to be learning, yet when it came to examinations they would repeatedly not do well. They would not be able to read well and it may be remembered that at that point of time getting the children to read aloud in class was a major way of teaching . There are documentations of school principals of that era who have indicated their concern about these children who according to them were defiantly intelligent but yet were failing repeatedly. Hence came in the term “dyslexia” (Dys means difficulty and lexia means words). Gradually as each and every child was now in the school system in Great Britain, there came in a realization that there were another set of children who even if they were okay with the age standard norm for reading, just could not write well. No amount of training helped them become really better. The new term that came into existence was dysgraphia (Dys means difficulty and graphia indicating writing)  and further as the school system improved and more resources were pumped into the school system another set of children were identified who came to be known as dyscalculia (Dys means difficulty and calculia indicating arithmetic).
Now the first term was dyslexia, and hence just as a petname/family name that many of us have, dyslexia in the mass memory continued to used as the umbrella term for dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, aphasia and so on.
Now around this time there was a lot of migration from Great Britain to the new land called USA. The psychologist, educationist who migrated there for greener pastors took with them the knowledge. They also took with the knowledge related to the term MR (mental retardation). Therein the term MR was being reconsidered as the terminology retardation was being now considered belittling. Therein the term MR was being replaced with LD (learning disabilities).
Now as the awareness increased in South Asia, it lead to  certain amount of confusion. There was a intermixing of the terminologies Mental Retardation (MR), Learning Disabilities (LD) and Learning Difficulties (LD). Hence came in the confusion that a MR is also LD or vice a versa. It needs a bit of minute observation as to why this happened and continues to happen. The abbreviation LD stands for both learning disabilities (LD) and learning difficulty (LD).
When we say learning difficulty it implies that there is a difficulty in learning which can be removed or which may not be possible to remove. For example if I am new to learning a language say French, I will have learning difficulty (LD) and NOT learning disability (LD). If my teacher does not know how to teach well than I will face learning difficulty (LD) and NOT learning disability (LD).
So a child with Mental retardation ( Intellectual disability) will have a learning disability and so will a child with dyslexia have a learning disability.

Oh! Can you now observe that type of confusion that the terminologies have created? Is dyslexia only dyslexia or is dyslexia also dygraphia, dyscalculia , aphaisa and others???? Hence as of now in South Asia the umbrella term used for ‘disability’ in reading, writing, arithmetic etc is Specific Learning Disability (SLD).  
         The confusion has not ended as yet. I can almost hear many of you saying SLD is NOT a disability and so even ASD is NOT a disability. Well! Well ! I completely agree with you, these are the off shoots of diversities in the brain structures. In my next article I will deal with the brain diversities and whether it is learning difficulties (LD), learning disabilities (LD) or Learning diversities (LD).

Before if I sign off, I would also want to touch on the term “Slow Learner” . This it as of now a sub-classification of Intellectual Disability or is it any one who is learning slowing. If it is anyone who is learning slowing than could it be the cause of faculty teaching, limitations of the child’s physical-socio-economic- cultural environment??? If yes than who is the “slow”, the child or the teacher or the parent?????

Slow learner
Learning disability
Learning difficulty
Learning deviance
Sp learning disability

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