MET:Students with Learning Disabilities

From UBC Wiki

This page was originally authored by Ed Leung (2009).

This page was added to and edited March, 2014 by Marianne Broderick (ETEC510-65D)


This article focuses on the services available or provided to students with learning disability in the province of British Columbia, Canada, only. As the scope of services vary greatly among countries and states, the information presented here may be inaccurate in other areas.

Learning Disabilities: A Definition

According to the most recent (2002) definition [1] from the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada [2], learning disability (LD) is a term used to identify several disorders that affect an individual’s ability to organize, retain, understand or utilize verbal and nonverbal information. Learning disabilities are significantly different than intellectual deficiencies because individuals with learning disabilities have difficulty in specific areas, but demonstrate average to above average abilities in others areas such as thinking and reasoning abilities. Learning disabilities present as an impairment in one or more processes related to the perceiving, thinking, remembering or learning of information. A learning disability is not a medical diagnosis but rather an identification of a deficiency in some cognitive process. Studies have estimated that 10% of the population of Canada has a learning disability (LDAC, 2000).

Types of Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities can be generally categorized into deficiencies with certain neurological processes. They include:

Visual- spatial reasoning
This refers to an individual’s ability to organize and interpret visual information. These individuals may also have difficulty with visual memory. Students with a visual- spatial reasoning deficiency may have difficulty distinguishing left from right and have difficulty manipulating simple visual patterns. In math, they may have difficulty with visual math concepts such as comparing or estimating visual lengths or distances without measuring. For example, geometry would be difficult for these students because they need to interpret visual information. They may also exhibit difficulties with letter formation and patterns. Also, drawing information from maps and charts will be a struggle. They also have difficulty copying information from another source. These students benefit from additional, clear verbal instructions. Visual organizers such as webs or diagrams, while helpful for most students, are very confusing for students with visual- spatial reasoning impairments.

Processing speed
This is a measure of cognitive efficiency. This function requires one to automatically and quickly perform routine cognitive tasks. Processing speed also refers to the ability of an individual to process information automatically and quickly without having to intentionally think about it. A student with a processing speed deficiency may have difficulty performing simple cognitive tasks automatically and may require additional time to process visual and written information. The speed with information is taken in, used or relayed may not be very efficient.

Memory and attention
This refers to an individual’ ability to hold information in their mind and to use this information at a later time.

Executive function (planning and decision- making)
This area refers to difficulties with planning, organizing, creating strategies or managing time and materials. This is often a challenge for students with LD because they can seem disorganized, messy, and their materials are often unavailable to complete tasks. As well, students often lose homework or forget to hand homework in. Teachers and parents can work together with students to formulate a routine and system for student organization.

Learning disabilities can also be identified as specific difficulties with particular subject areas. These students may exhibit difficulties with one or more or the previous cognitive processes, but in specific areas. These learning disabilities are:

This term refers to a language- based learning disability specifically related to reading. This learning disability can affect all or some areas of language such as reading, writing, spelling and speaking. Individuals with dyslexia process language differently and thus may interpret the information differently as well. Students with Dyslexia may have difficulty recognizing and recalling letters, have difficulty learning to read and understand print material and have difficulty processing the meaning of material they have read. These students have a difficult time understanding and expressing information using words. This is the most common learning disability and accounts for at least 80% of all learning disabilities. (Integra, 2009).

This term refers to a learning disability associated with math. Students may have difficulty recognizing numbers, applying processes and strategies to solve math problems or have difficulty grasping math concepts due to a deficiency with one or more cognitive processes.

This language disability affects students in their written output. It affects their writing as they attempt to process information and utilize complex motor skills at the same time. This learning disability can manifest in poor handwriting, problems with spelling, and low written output. Students with dysgraphia may also have difficulty organizing writing, representing letters, number and words on a page.

This disability affects the development of an individual’s motor skills. Students with Dyspraxia have difficulty planning and executing fine motor tasks, which can affect their self -care skills. Although this is not a learning disability, it can affect a student’s ability to complete academic tasks and often present with other learning disabilities.

Effects of Learning Disabilities

The survey, Environmental Scan: Emerging Issues in Learning Disability in Canada, found that there were significant effects on individuals with learning disabilities that exceeded the boundaries of academics. This study was administered to Learning Disabilities Association staff and professional volunteers across Canada. Although this survey did not involve first hand information from individuals or families, it provided a broader knowledge base as it drew information from those who worked closely with many families and individuals with learning disabilities. This survey found that students with learning disabilities are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs and had increased incidence of criminal activity (LDAC, 2000, p.17). Thus, the consequences of overlooking students with learning disabilities and withholding funds to ensure their success has long term social consequences beyond the classroom.

Government’s Role and Responsibilities for Students with LD

In British Columbia, Canada, students with learning disabilities are listed as one of the eleven categories of students who require “special needs.” The Ministry of Education [3] has developed a manual of policies detailing the assessment, the intervention, and the services, available to these students.

The Special Education Services Manual: 2008

It is important to point out, however, that a person with learning disabilities is NOT precluded from having other special needs in learning. For example, a student with learning disabilities can also be gifted, and have an autism spectrum disorder. Overall, in B.C., ministry policies try to “enable the equitable participation of students with special needs in the education system.” (Roles and Responsibilities) [4]

According to the School Act [5] in British Columbia, students tested and designated as ones with learning disabilities (designation “Q”) do not receive additional funding from the ministry. [6] This is different from students with other defined special needs in learning, such as autism or those requiring intensive behaviour interventions.

Court Proceedings Regarding Government's Roles and Responsibilities for Students with LD

One landmark court case has had major implications in regards to roles and responsibilities of governments and schools in providing adequate support and accommodations for learning disabilities. This case, Moore vs. the Province of BC, was a result of events that began in the 1990s.


In the 1990s, Jeffrey Moore was identified as a student with a severe learning disability. Moore attended a public school in the District of North Vancouver, British Columbia. As a result of his identification and his struggles as a learner, he was eligible to attend an intensive program to support students with severe learning disabilities. However, due to deep budget cuts and reduced funding in the district, the program was closed. The subsequent support he did receive to address his learning disability was not comparable to the earlier, intensive program. Moore’s parents were advised to place him in a private school, which they did. The cost of the program was a considerable financial burden to the family. Jeffrey Moore’s parents filed an application with the BC Human Rights Tribunal that claimed that the district and the province discriminated against Jeffery when it did not adequately accommodate Jeffrey’s learning needs. The tribunal ruled in favour of the Moore family, finding that the province and school did not provide appropriate or timely support to address Jeffrey’s learning disability. The Tribunal’s decision was later overturned by the BC Supreme Court. As well, the Court of Appeal in BC dismissed the Moore’s appeal. Jeffrey’s father, on behalf of Jeffrey, filed a final appeal that reached the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Supreme Court of Canada's Decision

On November 9, 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the Tribunal’s original finding that the District of North Vancouver and the province of BC failed to provide the adequate, educational supports that a student with a learning disability would need to become successful learner. The Supreme Court’s decision included some important findings that have implications for the consideration of support for students with learning disabilities. The decision found that the finding of discrimination made by the Tribunal should be upheld, as well as the order to reimburse the Moore’s for the cost of Jeffrey’s private school tuition as well as damages. The decision also stated that “for students with learning disabilities like Jeffrey’s, special education is not the service, it is the means by which those students get meaningful access to the general education services available to all of British Columbia’s students” (Moore v. British Columbia, 2012, Section 28, p. 375). In effect, the withdrawal of services due to financial considerations effectively meant that Jeffery did not have adequate access to education that he was entitled to as a student in British Columbia.

Implications of the Supreme Court of Canada's Findings

In an article written for the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, Philpott and Fiedorowicz (2012) summarized important implications for education in BC. Firstly, the onus falls on schools to identify and support students with learning disabilities as soon as possible. A study (PACFOLD) conducted in Canada in 2007 found that early identification and intervention was being affected by the lack of educational funding directed to schools in the form of support services and psychologists equipped to identify students. Thus, the study found that on average, schools and teachers were waiting 2 to 5 years before identifying students with learning disabilities. This survey was a result of intensive review and analysis of Canadian statistics available through the government of Canada. The ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada decision means that schools and educators must identify and provide remediation as soon as possible to students with learning disabilities. The withdrawal of services is not an option because the services are what allow a student access to information and an adequate, meaningful education. Individualized learning based on a student’s needs is a right that is recognized and supported by the decision.

Furthermore, the court underlined the fact that “dyslexia is a disability” (Moore v. British Columbia, 2012, section 34, p. 377). The court’s language in it’s ruling supports the idea that dyslexia is a disability, which means that students with learning disabilities must not be discriminated against. Conversely, this disability means that educators and institutions must make meaningful and timely accommodations to ensure that the student’s needs are supported in the school environment.

Finally, the District of North Vancouver’s cuts to special needs programs highlights the concept that its cuts to special programs under financial strain has an adverse affect on some of the most vulnerable students in the public school system. The Moore case also reiterates the importance of parent and student self- advocacy.

In an LDAC report published in 2000, a survey of respondents “indicated that parents are increasingly respondents to the courts and the Human Rights Commission of Canada, to represent their case, establishing their children’s rights to appropriate educational services and to gain access to these services for children with learning disabilities” (LDAC, 2000, p. 14). As educational budgets are increasingly stretched, students with learning disabilities and their families are struggling to receive the support needed to function and thrive in schools. Although additional resources and support are needed by classroom teachers, these same teachers must find alternative methods for addressing learning needs and differentiating learning for students with learning disabilities in the mainstream classroom.

Government-mandated Services Available

Non-technology-based Services

The provincial government has mandated a variety services for students with special needs, including learning disabilities (Special Considerations) [7]. The services and personnel available is dependent to the type of special needs the student has, ranging from individual assistance such as that from a speech-language pathologist, to more general services such as distributed (online) learning. Some of these services are also available to students without special needs. A student with an identified learning disability will be provided with an Individualized Education Plan (I.E.P.) to support their specific learning needs by identifying appropriate services , strategies and goals for that particular student.

Special Education Technology-BC (SET-BC)

SET-BC [8] is a resource program funded by the provincial government of British Columbia to assist public and private schools in supporting educational programs “through the use of technology.” [9]

Specifically for students with learning disabilities, SET-BC aims to provide technology services to assist students achieve some of the learning objectives as outlined by their individual educational plan (I.E.P.). This may include, for example, the loan of a laptop computer for students who are experiencing challenges with written output. SET-BC also work with SET-BC Adult Services to continue to provide support for learning-disable students when they graduate from high schools.

Other Assistive Technologies Available

Private companies have long been developing programs to assist students who have learning disabilities to alleviate some of the learning challenges they have. Programs developed can be used by an individual with specific learning challenges, or can be ones which serve an adapted/modified class where the entire student population require a specific adaptive strategy to compensate for some of their learning difficulties. As school districts move towards 21st century learning and using school and PAC (Parent Advisory Council) funds for technology, teachers can begin to use assistive technology and technology alternatives to support students with learning disabilities in the classroom. At the same time, these technologies become strategies and tools to overcome these learning disabilities outside of the classroom and academia. For example, a study conducted by Floyd & Judge (2012) with 6 college participants with LD indicated that all participants used some form of assistive technology software such as Dragon Speak. Although the main focus of the study was to determine the usability and effectiveness of ClassMate Reader as an assistive technology, other important themes emerged. Firstly, “five of the six participants indicated that having assistance with reading comprehension was vital to their success in college” and “all participants used various forms of technology to support their coursework (e.g., DragonSpeak, Pulse Smartpen, and Natural Reader)” ( Floyd & Judge, 2012, p. 60). Thus, the continued use and comfort with assistive technology throughout a student’s career has the potential to aid them in becoming successful throughout their lives. Below are examples of some assistive technologies for the classroom.

Technologies for a Class

The interface from the Fast ForWord Literacy Advanced Program

Fast ForWord is a learning program designed by Scientific Learning [10] to assist students with the acquisition of reading skills. The program is a reading intervention software where students are expected to spend at least half to an hour each school day in front of a computer lab station. During each session, the student will be exposed to a variety of exercises and interactive games aimed to “develop and strengthen memory, attention, processing rate, and sequencing skills.” Researchers believe that these are cognitive skills essential for learning and reading success.

Some public schools in B.C. uses the Fast ForWord program to assist learning-disabled students whose reading levels are substantially below (over 3 grades lower) than their same-age peers. In these cases, the District Resource Teacher (DRT) would work with the school counsellor to replace the elective classes (usually a second language class and a fine arts/applied skills class) with two classes spent in the Fast ForWord Lab. While results of this intervention is not yet available, it is expected to yield similar positive results as some school districts in the U.S. [11]

Technologies for an Individual

Education professionals have recommended a variety of technology-based programs to assist students with various learning challenges. Below are a couple of popular programs educators often suggest students with learning disabilities to adapt in using:

A student using a speech-to-text software to write

The Dragon Naturally Speaking software [12] is a well-known program developed by Nuance Corporate [13] . In terms of its application to students with learning disabilities, it allows students with output difficulties (such as those who have dysgraphia) to read out an assignment. The computer program will transcribe the input voice into a text format that a student can submit to his/her teachers.

The ReadPlease [14] software is a program developed in Canada to assist students who have difficulties in reading. The program turns the text on a computer screen into speech. In terms of students with learning disabilities, the program works well with students who have dyslexia, for example.

The increased popularity of the iPad and iPod has also resulted in the development of multiple apps that can be used to assist students with LD and allow them to become more independent in the regular classroom. The National Center for Learning Disabilities has compiled a comprehensive list of apps to aid dysgraphia and writing difficulties, as well as an alternate one for students with dyslexia and reading difficulties. A separate list also details apps to aid with organization and study skills.

Furthermore, every learning disability is different and affects each individual differently. Therefore, various assistive technologies can have a varied success for different students. However, agencies such as SET- BC can help parents, teachers and students determine the best available technology to support students with LD. As well, there are also guides to assist parents and educators in gaining a better understanding of various assistive technologies that are available. This overview of assistive technology provides a summary of available technology.

Related Links and Resources

Dragon Naturally Speaking Software by Nuance Corp.: [15]
Learning Disabilities Association of BC: [16]
Learning Disabilities Association of Canada: [17]
Ministry of Education, British Columbia: [18]
ReadPlease – the text-to-speech software: [19]
Resource Documents for Students with Special Needs (B.C.): [20]
Special Education Technology: British Columbia (SET-BC): [21]
Suggested Assistive Resources for Students with Learning Disabilities (from the Nipissing University): [22]


Stop Motion Animation - Autism and Technology

Stop Motion Animation - Overview and Irlen Syndrome

Stop Motion Animation - Dyslexia


Floyd, K. & Judge, S. (2012) . The efficacy of assistive technology on reading comprehension for postsecondary students with learning disabilities. Assistive Technology Outcomes and Benefits, 8 (1). 48-64. Retrieved from

K-12 Funding - Special Needs. (2002). Policy Document. Retrieved February 26, 2009, from the Ministry Policies, Ministry of Education. Web site: [23]

Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC). (2000). Environmental Scan: Emerging Issues in Learning Disability in Canada. Retrieved March 1, 2014 from

LD Defined. (2002). Official Definition of Learning Disabilities. Retrieved February 27, 2009, from The Learning Disability Association of Canada. Web site: [24]

Moore v. British Columbia, Supreme Court of Canada. (2012). Retrieved from the Department of Justice Canada website:

Putting a Canadian Face on Learning Disabilities (PACFOLD). (2007). Retrieved February 26, 2014 from

Philpott, D.F. & Fiedorowicz, C.A.M. (2012). The Supreme Court of Canada Ruling on Learning Disabilities. Learning Disabilities Association of Canada. Retrieved March 3, 2014 from

Results: Special Education. (n.d.) Fast ForWord – Family of Products. Retrieved March 1, 2009, from Scientific Learning. Web site: [25]

Roles and Responsibilities. (2008). Special Education Services: A Manual of Policies, Procedures, and Guidelines. Retrieved February 24, 2009, from B.C. Ministry of Education. Web site: [26]

Special Considerations: Services (2008). Special Education Services: A Manual of Policies, Procedures, and Guidelines. P.31 - 39. Retrieved February 24, 2009, from B.C. Ministry of Education. Web site: [27]

Special Education Technology-BC (2008). Special Education Services: A Manual of Policies, Procedures, and Guidelines. Retrieved February 27, 2009, from B.C. Ministry of Education. Web site: [28]

Types of LD. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from the National Centre for Learning Disabilities. Website: