Learning is a complex task that involves our five senses, all working together in a seamless fashion to create meaningfulness to ourselves in a confusing and ever changing world. And not everyone learns the same way.
But learning differences go way beyond simply being a “visual” or and “auditory” learner. Real learning differences can often involve true learning disabilities – a genuine biological, neuro-anatomical disruption in what might ordinarily be “normal” information processing.
The national Department of Education (ED) Section 504 regulation defines several aspects of learning disabilities under what is called “handicaps.” Section 504 refers to any kind of limiting condition, whether physical, cognitive or emotional. According to the ED government website, an individual with “handicaps” is defined as “any person who (i) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities, (ii) has a record of such an impairment, or (iii) is regarded as having such an impairment.”
The regulation further defines a physical or mental impairment as:
“(A) any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological; musculoskeletal; special sense organs; respiratory, including speech organs; cardiovascular; reproductive; digestive; genitourinary; hemic and lymphatic; skin; and endocrine; or
“(B) any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities. The definition does not set forth a list of specific diseases and conditions that constitute physical or mental impairments because of the difficulty of ensuring the comprehensiveness of any such list.
“The key factor in determining whether a person is considered an “individual with handicaps” covered by Section 504 is whether the physical or mental impairment results in a substantial limitation of one or more major life activities. Major life activities, as defined in the regulation, include functions such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.
“The impairment must have a material effect on one’s ability to perform a major life activity. For example, an individual who has a physical or mental impairment would not be considered a person with handicaps if the condition does not in any way limit the individual, or only results in some minor limitation.
“However, in some cases Section 504 also protects individuals who do not have a handicapping condition, but are treated as though they do because they have a history of, or have been mis-classified as having, a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
“For example, if you have a history of a handicapping condition but no longer have the condition, or have been incorrectly classified as having such a condition, you too are protected from discrimination under Section 504.
“Frequently occurring examples of the first group are persons with histories of mental or emotional illness, heart disease, or cancer; of the second group, persons who have been mis-classified as mentally retarded. Persons who are not disabled may be covered by Section 504 also if they are treated as if they are handicapped, for example, if they are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus.”
Chapter 766 is the Massachusetts law which guarantees the rights of all young people with special needs (age 3-22) to an educational program best suited to their needs. The law also mandates that a team of experienced individuals conduct evaluations and Annual Reviews to develop an ongoing individual education plan (I.E.P.) to ensure an appropriate education for the child.
Massachusetts’ Special Education Laws and Regulations define “Disability” to mean one or more of the following conditions of impairment:
A developmental disability that significantly affects an individual’s verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction. The state refers to the federal law for further definition of autism.
Where the learning capacity of a young child (3-9 years old) is significantly limited, impaired, or delayed and is also demonstrated by difficulties in one or more of the following physical, emotional or cognitive areas:
• Receptive language
• Expressive language
• Cognitive functioning and abilities
• Physical functioning
• Social, emotional, or adaptive functioning
• Self-help skills
A significant limitation or impairment in an individual’s permanent, enduring capacity for performing cognitive tasks, employing cognitive functions, or utilizing problem solving ability. (This condition also includes students with mental retardation.) These impairments are usually demonstrated by more than one of the following ways
• A slower rate of learning
• Disorganized patterns of learning
• Difficulty with adaptive behavior
• Difficulty understanding abstract concepts.
This condition covers a wide range of issues and involves one or more of our five senses:
Hearing Impairment or Deafness
“The capacity to hear, even with amplification, is limited, impaired, or absent and results in one or more of the following: reduced performance in hearing acuity tasks; difficulty with oral communication; and/or difficulty in understanding auditorally-presented information in the education environment. The term includes students who are deaf and students who are hard-of-hearing.”
Vision Impairment or Blindness
“The capacity to see, after vision correction, is limited, impaired, or absent and results in one or more of the following: reduced performance in visual acuity tasks; difficulty with written communication; and/or difficulty with understanding information presented visually in the education environment. The term includes students who are blind and students with limited vision.”
Combined hearing and visual impairments, “the combination of which causes severe communication and other developmental and educational needs.”
The term includes students who have received a traumatic brain injury and is defined as a limitation of the central nervous system with difficulties exhibited in the use of memory, the control and use of cognitive functioning, sensory and motor skills, speech, language, organizational skills, information processing, affect, social skills, or basic life functions.
This is further defined under federal law, and any determination of disability won’t be made solely because a student’s behavior violates any school’s discipline code, or because student may be involved with a state court or social service agency, or simply because a student may be socially maladjusted. As always, an assessment team must determines that a student has a serious emotional disturbance.
But briefly, the law defines an emotional impairment as when a student exhibits “one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects educational performance:
• an inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors;
• an inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers;
• inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances;
• a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression;
• a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems”
This is when “the capacity to use expressive and/or receptive language is significantly limited, impaired, or delayed and is exhibited by difficulties in one or more areas of speech and language usage, such as in the use of speech, articulation or voice or an impairment in the ability to convey, understand, or use spoken, written, or symbolic language. This term may also include a student with impaired articulation, stuttering, language impairment, or voice impairment if such impairment adversely affects the student’s educational performance.”
This term “includes severe orthopedic impairments or impairments caused by congenital anomaly, cerebral palsy, amputations, and fractures, if such impairment adversely affects a student’s educational performance.”
It also includes when “the physical capacity to move, coordinate actions, or perform physical activities is significantly limited, impaired, or delayed and is exhibited by difficulties in one or more of the following areas:
• physical and motor tasks;
• independent movement;
• performing basic life functions.
“A chronic or acute health problem such that the physiological capacity to function is significantly limited or impaired and results in limited strength, vitality, or alertness and includes a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli resulting in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment.
“The term shall include health impairments due to asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit with hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, and sickle cell anemia, if such health impairment adversely affects a student’s educational performance.”
Specific Learning Disability
This is the term that means “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using spoken or written language that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations.”