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Centre for Accessibility Services

Specific learning disorder

What is a specific learning disorder?

A specific learning disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder that presents difficulties in learning and using academic skills, despite the provision of interventions that target those difficulties. The affected academic skills are substantially and quantifiably below those expected for the individual’s chronological age and interfere with academic performance. Learning difficulties for these individuals may be mild, moderate or severe and may manifest fully when the demand for academic skills exceeds the individual’s limited capacities (e.g. timed tests, reading or writing lengthy reports, heavy academic loads, etc.).

Symptoms & common characteristics

  • Inaccurate or slow and effortful word reading.
  • Difficulty understanding the meaning of what is read.
  • Difficulties with spelling.
  • Difficulties with written expression.
  • Difficulties mastering number sense, number facts, or calculation.
  • Difficulties with mathematical reasoning.
  • Specific learning disorders can interfere with a person’s ability to store, process or produce information and create a “gap” between one’s ability and performance. They are invisible and lifelong.
  • Individuals are generally of average or above-average intelligence.
  • Affects one’s ability to read, write, speak, compute math and can impede social skills. 
  • Individuals with specific learning disorders can have marked difficulties on certain types of tasks while excelling at others. 
  • Specific learning disorders are NOT the same as the following disabilities: developmental delay, autism, deafness, blindness or behavioral disorders.
  • It is estimated that one in ten people in BC from all age, ethnic and social groups are affected by learning disabilities. 

Common types of specific learning disorders with DSM-5 coding

315.00 With impairment in reading:

  • Word reading accuracy
  • Reading rate or fluency
  • Reading comprehension

Dyslexia – is an alternate term used to refer to a pattern of learning difficulties characterized by problems with accurate or fluent word recognition, poor decoding, and poor spelling abilities and language processing. People with dyslexia have trouble distinguishing or separating sounds in the spoken word.

315.2 With impairment in written expression:

  • Spelling accuracy
  • Grammar and punctuation accuracy
  • Clarity or organization of written expression

Dysgraphia (Developmental writing disorder) – this disorder includes difficulties with syntax, visual, audio and difficulty writing legibly. 

315.1 With impairment in mathematics:

  • Number sense
  • Memorization of arithmetic facts
  • Accurate or fluent calculation
  • Accurate math reasoning

Dyscalculia – is an alternative term used to refer to a pattern of difficulties characterized by problems processing numerical information, learning arithmetic facts, and performing accurate or fluent calculations. Involves difficulty with math skills in memory and computation.

Centre for Accessibility support for specific learning disorders may include

  • Note-taking services
  • Alternate format materials (texts in PDF/E-text)
  • Exam accommodations (i.e. extended time, alternate setting, computer use, reader/scribe, calculator)
  • Applications for funded learning supports/technology


  • According to Statistics Canada, more children in this country have a learning disability than all other types of disabilities combined.
  • According to Statistics Canada, more than half a million adults in this country live with a learning disability, making it more challenging for them to learn in universities and colleges, and on the job.
  • Learning disabilities frequently co-occurred with other types of disability: 96.3% of respondents who reported a learning disability also reported at least one other type of disability. The pattern of co-occurrence varied by age.  Mental health-related disabilities had the highest rate of co-occurrence for adults aged 15 to 24 with a learning disability, while physical disability had the highest rate of co-occurrence for adults aged 25 and older.


Learning Disabilities Association of Canada

Burgstahler, S.E., & Cory, R.C. (Eds.) (2008). Universal Design in Higher Education. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Education Press.

Statistics Canada

How to support students with a specific learning disorder

  • Equitable use – instruction useful to and accessible by people with diverse abilities (e.g. provide class notes online).
  • Flexibility in use – the instruction is designed to accommodate a wide range of individual abilities (e.g. use varied instructional methods, such as lectures with visual outlines, group activities, web board-based discussions).
  • Simple and intuitive – the instruction designed in a straightforward and predictable manner; eliminate unnecessary complexity (e.g. clear grading rubrics, comprehensive and accurate syllabus).
  • Perceptible information – the instruction is designed so that necessary information is communicated effectively to all students (e.g. alternate format materials for required readings).
  • Tolerance for error – the instruction anticipates variation in individual student learning pace and prerequisite skills (e.g. provision of online practice exercises that supplement classroom instruction).
  • Low physical effort – the instruction is designed to minimize the nonessential physical effort to allow maximum attention to learning (e.g. allowing students to use a word processor for writing and editing papers or essay exams).
  • Size and space for approach and use – instruction is designed with consideration for appropriate size and space for approach (e.g. in small class settings, use of a circular seating arrangement to allow students to see and face speakers during discussion).
  • A community of learners – the instructional environment promotes interaction and communication (e.g. structuring study groups, discussion groups, email lists).
  • Instructional climate – instruction is designed to be welcoming and inclusive (e.g. a statement in the class syllabus affirming the need for class members to respect diversity; encouraging students to discuss any special learning needs with the instructor).

Resources and websites 

American Psychiatric Association

Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario

College guide for students with learning disabilities

Tips and tools for students with specific learning disorder

Daily routine: To ensure that you are successful in your time at university, creating a routine that provides you with enough sleep, healthy eating and regular exercise can be beneficial to your overall health. A proper routine will decrease or eliminate the symptoms of your disability and allow you to maintain good mental, emotional and physical health.

Identity: Practice how you want to refer to your disability and identify what supports you need. Become familiar with the various access supports and discover what works best for you. Know how to access them.

Meet with your instructor: You are your own best advocate so regular communication with your instructors and support team is recommended to ensure that your needs are being met. Instructors provide information about their office hours and ways to communicate at the beginning of the course. Utilize these times to check in with your progress, ask questions and receive feedback.

Assistive technology: There are a variety of devices that can support your ability to learn. Some of these supports include digital recorders, note-taking services, laptops, alternate format textbooks, speech to text/text to speech, etc. If you require support through technology to assist your learning environment, talk to your accessibility advisor about these challenges so they can help you explore the various supports available.

Alternate format: Consider your needs around alternate format course materials and place your request immediately following the registration for your classes. Your accessibility advisor can submit your requests immediately to ensure you prepared for class.

Deadlines: Technology can be difficult to manage at times, but when it comes to supporting us with our everyday tasks, it can be a lifesaver. Our cell phones, laptops, tablets, and computers come with a variety of tools that can help manage our daily lives. There are an assortment of software or apps that can assist with creating to-do lists, events calendars, and reminders. These tools can highlight important tasks and ensure projects meet the required deadlines. In any case, embrace the technology and find an app that works for you. Try to use one device or sync your device to others so information can be easily accessible.

Lack of attention/focus: It may take longer to do things. Try to focus on one thing at a time. Reduce distractions by working in a clear area and wear ear-plugs to block out sounds that may be distracting.

Memory: Use a calendar, journal or notepad to help keep track of important information. Timers and alarms can help remind you of appointments, projects or class time. Ask a family member or friend to help with reminders, maybe using them as a backpack plan to your technology.

Thinking: You may need more time to process information. Avoid multitasking to give yourself more time to think things through. Break tasks into smaller steps to simplify the process and think about each step, one at a time. Ask for help to remember things or think through complicated tasks.

Resources and websites

American Psychiatric Association

Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario

College guide for students with learning disabilities

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