Learning disabilities by the numbers

At a glance

  • Learning disabilities like dyslexia are common.

  • They’re caused by differences in the brain — not laziness.

  • People with learning disabilities need the right support to thrive in school and in life.

How many kids have (LD) and ? How many get support for these challenges at school? And what do surveys tell us about the stigma faced by people who learn and think differently?

Use these stats to better understand learning disabilities and related challenges.

How common are learning and thinking differences?

1 in 5 children in the U.S. have learning and thinking differences like and ADHD. These challenges are caused by variations in how the brain develops and processes information. But it's unrelated to intelligence. It just means kids need strategies and supports to help them thrive.

How many kids have formal support plans at school?

Only a small number of kids who learn and think differently receive or specialized instruction.

1 in 16 public school students have for LD or for other health impairments (OHI). (These are two of the 13 disability categories covered under special education law. LD covers kids with , , and other learning differences. When kids qualify for special education because of ADHD, they’re classified under OHI.)

1 in 42 public school students have . The percentage of kids with 504 plans has more than doubled in the past decade. Like IEPs, these plans provide accommodations for kids with disabilities. But unlike IEPs, they don’t provide specialized instruction. And schools don’t have to classify kids with 504 plans by disability type.

These groups combined don’t come anywhere close to 1 in 5. This means millions of kids who learn and think differently aren’t being identified by schools as needing support.

How many special education students have LD or ADHD?

More than half (54 percent) of the kids in special education have IEPs for LD or OHI.

2.3 million public school students have IEPs for LD. This is by far the largest disability category covered under special education law. More than one-third (38 percent) of all students with IEPs are classified as having LD.

970,000 public school students have IEPs for OHI. This category has been growing fast. And researchers say two-thirds of the kids in this category have ADHD.

How much of the school day do these kids spend in general education classrooms?

7 out of 10 kids with IEPs for LD spend 80 percent or more of the school day in general education classrooms. The same is true for two-thirds of kids with IEPs for OHI. The trend toward inclusion is good. But many kids don’t receive enough support in general education classrooms.

Only 30 percent of general educators feel strongly that they can successfully teach kids with LD. More training and resources are needed to help diverse learners thrive in general education classrooms.

What happens when kids with LD or ADHD don’t get the right support?

Kids who learn and think differently can struggle without the right support. This can lead to problems in many areas:

  • Repeating a grade: Kids who learn and think differently often don’t get early or effective interventions. That helps explain why one-third of students with IEPs for LD or OHI have been held back a grade. (Repeating a grade raises the risk of dropping out.)

  • School discipline: Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended as those without disabilities. The loss of instructional time raises the risk of failing. It also raises the risk of kids refusing to go to school.

  • Dropping out: Students with LD drop out of high school at nearly three times the rate of all students. The top reason students with LD drop out? 57 percent cited disliking school or having poor relationships with teachers or peers.

  • Justice involvement: Unaddressed learning and thinking differences can lead to trouble with the law. A large study found that half of young adults with LD or OHI had been involved with the justice system.

  • Not finishing college: Young adults with LD enroll in four-year colleges at half the rate of the general population. Their completion rate for any type of college is 41 percent. (That compares to 52 percent of all young adults.)

  • Unemployment: Only 46 percent of working-age adults with LD are employed. Compared with adults who do not have LD, adults with these challenges are twice as likely to be jobless.

How does stigma make it harder for kids and adults to get the support they need?

  • 33 percent of classroom teachers and other educators believe these challenges are sometimes just laziness.

  • 43 percent of parents say they wouldn’t want others to know if their child had LD.

  • 48 percent of parents believe incorrectly that kids grow out of learning differences.

  • 76 percent of college students with LD say they didn’t tell their college that have a disability — and by law, they can’t ask for accommodations without disclosing their disability.

  • 81 percent of young adults with LD have not made their employers aware of their disability — and only 5 percent say they get accommodations in the workplace.

There are many ways to help kids who learn and think differently thrive in school and in life. Just understanding that these differences are real is a good start. Unpack more myths about learning and thinking differences, including ADHD myths and dyslexia myths.

For more stats from NCLD’s 2017 “State of Learning Disabilities” report, go to ncld.org/StateofLD.

Key takeaways

  • People who learn and think differently are just as smart as their peers.

  • Millions of kids who learn and think differently don’t get the support they need in school.

  • Students with disabilities are more likely to get suspended or drop out of school.


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