Tova Elberg, Ph.D.

A learning disability is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects reading, writing, language and mathematics. ADHD is a separate disorder which impacts learning but often occurs together with other disabilities or it can exist on its own. Examples of learning disabilities include dyslexia, dyscalculia, memory and various language-related disorders.

What is not a learning disability

Below are questions and comments I often receive regarding learning disabilities and accommodations (see also Testing Accommodations).

You might. You have “dyscalculia” or stated differently a specific learning disorder in mathematics. That merits investigations. Note however, that attention related deficits and deficits in executive functions,  such as poor working memory can result in difficulty  performing  mental calculations or calculations with paper and pencil. Poor procedural memory can also results in difficulty performing calculations and remembering ordered steps. This merits investigation. Relative difficulty however, in performing some academic task is not necessarily a learning disability.

Slow reading speed can be a sign of a disability which merits investigation,  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/perfectionist working style (which in conjunction with other symptoms can also qualify for a time extension).  Note that attention related deficits can cause “slow reading” because of the need to read repeatedly to absorb information. People with attention deficit, read well but don’t remember or internalize what they read. Their thoughts often go elsewhere or they have difficulty with divided attention-having to focus on decoding and content at the same time. Often for these individuals, their listening comprehension is better.

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, parent and teacher reports, clinical observation and self report of symptoms with which to make the assessment. A family history of attention disorder, is a warning bell


People who make spelling errors may have dyslexia, which has to be investigated, but are not necessarily dyslexic. Many never learned to spell. Some errors are due to impulsivity, memory deficits, or severe graphomotor deficits. 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 what we call orthographic errors, which is a clear sign of disability and his writing cannot be understood, an evaluation is warranted, and that person can apply for a test writer for the essay portion or a test or spell check device (on the TOEFL). Phonetic errors can be a sign of disability but don’t have to be. That merits a more thorough investigation.

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 student is too slow, then the reason for that  should be examined. It’s possible that he has a handicapping condition, such as attention deficit, a reading disability, obsession, anxiety, a vision-related problem or a host of other issues.


Just because you didn’t get into the university of your choice does not mean that you have a learning disability. If you think you have a disability for other reasons, then have an evaluation. The purpose of accommodations, however is not to help you get into Harvard.


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 disability which also affects you in life functions, 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 or  symptom exaggeration.

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