A history of learning disabilities and ADHD

At a glance

  • The first reference to ADHD in a medical journal may have been in 1902.

  • The term dyslexia wasn’t commonly used in the U.S. until the 1930s.

  • Awareness and research of learning disabilities and ADHD took off in the 21st century.

Was ADHD always called “ADHD”? How have special education law and special education research advanced over the years? Explore the history of learning disabilities and ADHD with this timeline. And find out when some famous people went public and started speaking out.

1800s to mid-1900s

Trends: Learning disabilities and ADHD aren’t on the public radar. But they are discussed by scientists and doctors.

1877 German neurologist Adolf Kussmaul coins the term “word blindness.” He defines it as “a complete text blindness ... although the power of sight, the intellect, and the powers of speech are intact.”

1887 German physician Rudolf Berlin uses the term “dyslexia” to help define reading challenges.

1902 The British medical journal Lancet publishes the poem “The Story of Fidgety Philip.” It may be the first reference to ADHD in a medical journal. Philip “... won’t sit still, He wriggles, And giggles, And then, I declare, Swings backwards and forwards, And tilts up his chair.”

1905 W.E. Bruner publishes the first report of childhood reading difficulties in the U.S. The term dyslexia wasn’t commonly used in the U.S. until the 1930s.

1955 The FDA approves the drug Ritalin for treatment of depression and fatigue, but not for ADHD. (ADHD won’t be recognized by the medical community for another 13 years.)

1960s and 1970s

Trends: Doctors and educators in the U.S. recognize learning disabilities and what will later be called ADHD. Public schools and the federal government start to act. But most kids with these challenges are taught in separate classrooms, away from their peers. Inclusion classrooms are not yet common.

1961 Ritalin is first used to treat “hyperkinetic” symptoms in kids.

1963 In Chicago, psychologist Samuel A. Kirk becomes the first to use the term “learning disability” at an education conference.

1964 Association for Children with Learning Disabilities (ACLD) is created. Now known as the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA), it has chapters in every state.

1968 What is now called ADHD first appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the manual used to diagnose conditions. It’s called “hyperkinetic impulse disorder.”

1969 Congress passes the first federal law that requires support services for kids with learning disabilities.

1973 Congress passes Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It bans discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that receive federal funding. This includes public schools.

1975 Congress passes the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA). Public schools are required to provide “free, appropriate public education” for all students.

1977 Pete and Carrie Rozelle found the National Center for Learning Disabilities. (It was known then as the Foundation for Children with Learning Disabilities.) As parents of a child with learning disabilities, the Rozelles strive to help other families.

1980s and 1990s

Trends: The education and medical communities strive to understand learning disabilities and ADHD — and how to help people who have them. ADHD becomes more widely known. There’s controversy over whether kids are being overdiagnosed.

1980 “Hyperkinetic impulse disorder” is renamed attention-deficit disorder (ADD). ADD was defined as a problem of inattention that could also come with hyperactivity.

1985 Singer and actress Cher talks about having dyslexia and what she calls “math dyslexia.” A decade later, she writes in her autobiography about having .

The first state dyslexia law is passed in Texas. Local school districts must screen students for dyslexia and put instructional interventions in place for kids who show signs of dyslexia. Over the next two decades, dozens of other states also pass dyslexia laws.

1987 ADD is renamed attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in a revision to the DSM.

1990 Congress passes the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It bans discrimination against people with disabilities in public spaces and the workplace.

EAHCA is changed and renamed as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In the new version, “disability” replaces “handicap.”

1996 The National Institute of Mental Health team identifies regions of the brain that work differently in people who have dyslexia. LD Online launches as the first internet resource for parents and teachers.

1997 Big changes to IDEA: Some students with ADHD can now qualify for special education under the “Other Health Impairment” category. General education teachers become part of the special education process. Students get more access to regular education and take statewide tests.

2000 to present day

Trends: Awareness and research of learning disabilities and ADHD issues take off. Federal law more clearly defines special education services and gives parents more rights. Researchers start using brain imaging to study these challenges.

2001 The Elementary and Secondary Education Act is renamed No Child Left Behind Act. It holds states and schools more accountable for student progress.

2002 Researchers at Yale University use fMRI technology to show that the brains of kids with dyslexia work differently than those of their peers when reading.

2003 Actor Henry (“The Fonz”) Winkler introduces the book character Hank Zipzer, a mischievous hero with dyslexia. Winkler, who has dyslexia, wanted to give kids a hero with whom they could identify.

2004 IDEA is updated. It gives parents more rights and better defines schools’ responsibilities. Response to intervention (RTI) is used to try to help struggling students.

2005 Yale University team identifies a gene associated with dyslexia.

2007 The Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education releases a “Dear Colleague” letter. It says that denying kids with disabilities access to accelerated academic programs is a civil rights violation.

Researchers at University College London use brain imaging to identify the area of the brain that works differently in people with dyscalculia.

2010 A GfK Roper survey finds that 80 percent of Americans agree that “children with learning disabilities are just as smart as you and me.”

Researchers at the M.I.N.D. Institute identify differences in electrical patterns in the brains of kids with ADHD. This shows a biological reason for trouble with attention.

2013 DSM-5 broadens its definition of the term “specific learning disorder.”

The U.S. Department of Labor passes federal regulations requiring contractors and subcontractors to set a goal that 7 percent of their workforce be people with disabilities.

2014 Understood.org launches. The initiative provides families of kids who learn and think differently with hands-on, personalized, and actionable information to understand and meet their needs. It later expands to serve educators, employers, and young adults.

2015 No Child Left Behind is repealed. In its place, Congress enacts the Every Student Succeeds Act. The new law gives each state the power to set its own goals for student achievement within a flexible federal framework.

2017 The U.S. Supreme Court decides the landmark case Endrew F. The Court says schools must provide special education services “reasonably calculated” to help kids make progress in school.

Check out inspiring stories about people with ADHD. Find out more about how many people have learning disabilities.

Key takeaways

  • People have been studying learning disabilities and ADHD for more than 100 years.

  • Over time, more and more people have become aware of these differences.

  • Research today may help us learn more in the future about how to help people with learning disabilities and ADHD thrive.


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