What Is Not a Learning Disability

Below are questions and comments I often receive regarding learning disabilities and accommodations.

“I have trouble in math, it’s always been so hard for me. I think I have a learning disability for math.”

Relative difficulty performing some academic task is not necessarily a learning disability. A learning disability must cause significant functional impairment in academic, social and/or occupational functioning.

“I’m a slow reader. I really need a time extension.”

Slow reading speed can be a sign of a disability but it doesn’t have to be. It can be part of a cognitive style. It can also be due to vision focusing deficits (which by the way can qualify for accommodations), or a very obsessive/perfectionistic working style (which in conjunction with other symptoms can also qualify for a time extension).

“I make so many careless errors, and always get penalized. Don’t I deserve an accommodation?”

Careless errors can be a sign of an attention deficit, but they don’t have to be. A more thorough assessment for an attention disorder has to be made. Vision related issues also have to be ruled out. We don’t have a blood test which measures ADHD, but we have behavioral rating scales, various psychological and neuropsychological tests, and clinical interviews with which to make the assessment.

“I can’t spell, does that mean I’m dyslexic?”

People who make spelling errors are not necessarily dyslexic. Many never learned to spell. Some errors are due to impulsivity, memory deficits or severe graphomotor deficits. Either way one cannot get an exemption from having to spell properly. At the same time, testing boards do not penalize for spelling errors as long as they can read what is written. If an individual makes orthographic errors due to dyslexia, and his writing cannot be understood, then an evaluation is warranted, and that person can apply for a test writer for the essay portion of a test. For phonetic spelling errors some testing boards will grant a spell checker.

“I believe I have higher potential and a time extension will allow me to fulfill it.”

Not living up to one’s “potential” is not necessarily a sign of a learning disability and accommodations are not granted to help individuals achieve their best possible score. They are designed to equalize the playing field between those who have disabilities and those who don’t.

At the same time, if a person is too slow then the reason for it should be examined, and maybe there is some sort of handicapping condition. A very slow rate of working could be due to an attention disorder, a reading disability, obsessivity, anxiety, a vision-related problem or a host of other issues.

“My GMAT scores are good enough for Columbia but not Harvard. I need extra time.”

Just because you didn’t get into the university of your choice, that does not mean that you have a learning disability.

“What kind of a story can we make up so that I can get extra time?”

Yes, people have asked me this. Testing boards are neither stupid nor naïve. You must make a clear and convincing case that you have a problem and provide empirical evidence to support it. 

A related question I get is, “Can test results be faked?” The answer is yes. However, an experienced evaluator can spot the signs of what the profession calls malingering and symptom exaggeration.

Nevertheless, the results of one test or another will neither determine a diagnosis nor ensure that you will get accommodations.