History of Learning Difficulties

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A Two Hundred Years History of Learning Disabilities


Educators have been perplexed for generations by the inability of some students to succeed in, or even comprehend, assigned classroom studies. Some students do well in academic studies, while others must struggle to achieve even mediocre success. Some students find schoolwork assignments easy to complete, while others find the experience to be a nightmare. Some students are successful in elementary and secondary educational levels and proceed on to higher degrees of education; others become frustrated with a public school system that constantly fails them and drop out at the earliest possible moment, simply to end the painful experience. Although many explanations can be offered to explain why some students do not perform satisfactorily, an underlying learning disability (LD) is often the culprit. The most common forms of LD are dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and short term memory dysfunction.

History of LD:

Although the United States federal government became involved in LD through task forces, legislation, and funding during the 1960s and 1970s LD is not a new concept. It can be traced back to the early l800s.

The earliest believed recognized case of LD occurred in 1802 when Franz Joseph Gall-a German-French anatomist and physiologist and Napoleon’s surgeon-recognized an association between brain injury in soldiers and subsequent expressive language disorders. In 1822, Gall published a book entitled Sur les Fonctions, in which he outlined his belief the brain was divided into twenty-seven separate "organs," each corresponding to a discrete human faculty. He believed one of those separate organs controlled the memory of things; the memory of facts; educability; perfectibility. Therefore, any imperfection in those processes must be due to a cranial fault.

In 1877, Adolph Kassmaul-a German physician-coined the phrase word blindness for loss of ability to read. The phrase, which is still used today to describe a form of dyslexia known as alexia, refers to a neurological disorder characterized by loss of the ability to read or understand the written word, either totally or partially. Partial word blindness permits the individual to recognize letters, but read only certain types of words.

John Hinshelwood-an ophthalmologist-and W. Pringle Morgan-a general practitioner-who took Kassmaul’s work on LD further into scientific research. In 1896, Hinshelwood noted the difference between alexia-complete word blindness-and dyslexia, which is a partial impairment. They both speculated that difficulties with reading and writing were due to congenital word blindness. Nevertheless, the dominant view for several years to come stressed the difficulties were caused by visual processing deficiencies. There remains continuing interest in the role of visual factors in the etiology of dyslexia, especially in the low level of impairments of the visual system. Later research would discount that connection and adopt the view that dyslexia is a verbal deficit. In 1920s American psychologists and researchers began to notice work done by their European counterparts who had been focusing on brain-behavior relationships, as well as learning disabilities exhibited by both children and adults. As a result, the Americans began to zero in on language and reading disabilities, placing importance on perceptual, perceptual-motor, and attention disabilities. The phenomenon of learning disabilities, then called the invisible handicap, was first noted by Dr. Kurt Goldstein in the late 1920s. Samuel Orton, Grace Fernald, Marion Monroe, and Samuel Kirk were just four researchers during that era that made substantial headway on understanding some of the more common forms of LD.

Samuel Orton teamed with his wife, June Orton, to study the field of language disabilities. Together they conducted research,...
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