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Journal Issue: Special Education for Students with Disabilities Volume 6 Number 1 Spring 1996

Learning Disabilities
G. Reid Lyon

Historical Influences

The study of learning disabilities was initiated in response to the need (1) to understand individual differences among children and adults who displayed specific deficits in spoken or written language while maintaining integrity in general intellectual functioning and (2) to provide services to these students, who were not being adequately served by the general educational system.6,9,10 Overall, the field of learning disabilities emerged primarily from a social and educational need and currently remains a diagnostic practice that is more rooted in clinical practice, law, and policy than in science. Advocates for children with learning disabilities have successfully negotiated a special education category as a means to educational protection at the same time that the schools have seen an increase in the identification of LD.6

The unexpected pattern of general strengths and specific weaknesses in learning was first noted and studied by physicians during the early twentieth century, thus giving the field its historical biomedical orientation.10 Doctors noted that children with learning disabilities were similar to adults and children with focal brain damage in that specific impairments in some areas of learning could occur without diminishing strengths in general cognitive ability.

Although the clinical work conducted during the first half of the twentieth century recognized the existence of learning disabilities, such information had little influence on public school policies until the mid-1960s. At this time, behavioral scientists, educators,11 and parents expressed concern that some children had learning handicaps that were not being served effectively by general educational practices.9 At the same time, these children were ineligible for special education services because their characteristics did not correspond to any recognized categories of disability. This disenfranchisement stimulated an advocacy movement to provide special educational services to students with learning disabilities,4,6,9 leading many states to establish a special education category for LD during the late 1960s and 1970s.