Learning disability has always been an enigma -puzzle or riddle. In the mid 1970s’s, when Congress was forging the language for the Education for All Handicapped Act -now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – there was a big battle going on between several groups who wanted their specific area of study or disability to be included in the legislation.
The two most prominent groups, vying for a place in the legislation, were researchers in the areas of perceptual motor and language. Because the field of learning was not able to come to agreement on which area would be included in the law, there was a 13th hour conference where a compromise was reached. The compromise was that instead of choosing one or the others areas in debate, a whole new category would be developed- Learning Disabilities. This new term was meant to encompass all types of areas of concern related to learning.
Forty years have passed since the original special education law was passed and still there is no consensus on how to define all learning disabilities and this includes reading disabilities. There are many theories about why children do not learn when they appear to have the potential to learn, but none of these theories stand up in all situations.
With all of the advances in medical technology that have come about in the past few years, we are starting to have the tools to actually see how an individual’s brain processes information related to reading. Educators have known for years that when a child does not learn to read, write or spell – as they should be able to do given their assumed potential – the issue resides is in how their brain makes meaning of the information received via visual and auditory input.
CT, MRI and PET scans are showing that when a child with normal reading ability looks at print material, a particular part of the brain shows up darker on the Scan. When a child with a reading disability is shown print material, the brain darkens in a different part of the brain indicating the information did not go to the part of the brain where it could be processed and understood.
There have been studies, using CT Scans and MRI studies that verify there are structural differences in the brains of subjects with Learning Disabilities in comparison to subjects without Learning Disabilities. There are also differences in how the brains of these two groups function. Scans from what is called a SPECT reveal persons with Learning Disabilities show under-functioning in the occipital lobe of the brain while reading as compared to person without Learning Disabilities.
So, what does this mean for educators and families? It means we now have confirmation of what we always felt was happening -a child who has difficulty learning to read, has something going on in their brain that makes learning difficult. Researchers are working to develop reading intervention programs that help train the brain to reroute information to the part of the brain that can “READ” it. The initial reports are that they are being successful in this endeavor.