The difference between learning disorder and learning disability

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD

In schools and elsewhere, you may hear the terms learning disorder and learning disability. These two terms have similar meanings. Often, they’re used interchangeably. However, there are technical differences between them that are important to know. 

Learning disorder is a diagnostic term. A licensed professional — usually, a psychologist — diagnoses a person with a learning disorder based on a list of symptoms.

Learning disability is a legal term. A public school identifies a student with a learning disability. This may result in legal rights, like the right to special education.

Educators use both terms. Over time, learning disability has become the more common term in schools. The chart below can help you understand how the terms differ.

 

Learning disorder

Learning disability

Main use

DiagnosisLegal rights

Where it’s defined

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Orders (DSM)

This is the handbook used by licensed professionals, like medical doctors and psychologists, to diagnose conditions.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

This is U.S. special education law. Learning disability also is covered by the definition of “disability” in other laws. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act.

How the term is applied

Only a licensed professional can diagnose a person with a learning disorder. Usually, the professional is a psychologist.

A person can be identified with a learning disability in a few ways.

A K–12 public school may identify a student with a learning disability through an evaluation. 

A college may identify students with a learning disability after they submit documentation. 

There are also other areas where the term might be used.  For example, within government agencies and private companies.

Criteria

To diagnose a learning disorder, the DSM requires four criteria:

  • Difficulties for at least six months with reading, writing, or math, despite targeted help

  • Academic skills well below what’s expected for the person’s age (and that cause problems in school, work, or everyday activities)

  • Difficulties that start during school age

  • Difficulties not caused by other conditions — like intellectual disability, vision or hearing problems, poverty, learning a new language, or lack of instruction

To identify a learning disability, K–12 public schools may use different approaches:

  • A student is far below state academic standards in reading, writing, or math

  • A student is not meeting state standards and is not making progress in response to targeted help

  • A student has a pattern of strengths and weaknesses in academic achievement or performance, given their age, intellectual development, and state standards

Each state has rules for which approach its public schools must use. States also may have cutoff scores and other measures.

Outside of K–12 public schools, the criteria can vary a lot.

Exclusions

The definitions of both terms exclude challenges caused by another condition. They also exclude learning problems from:

  • Visual, hearing, or motor disabilities

  • Intellectual disability

  • Emotional disturbance 

  • Environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage

Examples

 

In the DSM, there are only three recognized learning disorders:

  • Specific learning disorder in reading

  • Specific learning disorder in writing

  • Specific learning disorder in math

There are many conditions that may qualify as learning disabilities under IDEA. You may see any of the three learning disorders from the DSM. But you might also see other terms like:

  • Dyslexia

  • Disorder of written expression

  • Dysgraphia (handwriting)

  • Dyscalculia (math)

  • Specific learning disability in reading

  • Specific learning disability in writing

  • Specific learning disability in math

  • Nonverbal learning disability

  • Learning disorder not otherwise specified

However, just having a condition doesn’t automatically qualify as a learning disability.

Does it give you legal rights?

No.

The purpose of a diagnosis is to help understand a person’s learning challenges. And then to decide how to treat them.

However, sometimes a diagnosis can support identification by a school.

Yes.

A K–12 student with a learning disability may have the right to individualized special education services to meet their needs. They also have the right to accommodations.

Outside of school, a person may get different rights. For example, an employer must offer reasonable accommodations to workers with disabilities.

Are the criteria the same everywhere?

Yes.

All professionals who use the DSM diagnose learning disorders with the same criteria.

Yes, in terms of the basic definition within schools.

IDEA applies to all 50 states and U.S. territories. However, states may have different rules for what qualifies as a learning disability.

Does it have a diagnostic code?

Yes.

Diagnostic codes are used by licensed professionals for insurance claims — although health insurance rarely covers diagnosis or treatment for a learning disorder. 

The diagnostic code is also a consistent standard. This makes it easier for researchers to study the causes of and treatments for a disorder.

No.

Unless you’re focused on legal rights, it’s often best not to get stuck on the technical differences between the two terms. Both are used to say that a person has learning challenges.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Andrew M.I. Lee, JD is an editor and attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Ellen Braaten, PhD is the director of LEAP at Massachusetts General Hospital.