Learning Strategies for Teaching Adults with Learning Disabilities

We have all heard the term learning disability and may know one or two learning disabilities themselves, but what is a learning disability?  Simply stated, a learning disability is a disorder that affects the acquisition, retention, understanding, organization or use of verbal and/or non-verbal information.  This entry discusses those who have average to high intelligence, yet have an impediment that prevents them from learning skills or knowledge in the same method or rate of speed as others with similar levels of intelligence.

Many learning disabilities are genetic or possibly caused by an injury. These disorders can include difficulties in the following skills:
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Speaking
  • Visual recognition
  • Math
  • Spatial or Mechanical
  • Social
Learning disabilities are more common than most people expect.  As trainers of adults, there is a likelihood that about 20 percent of our learners will have some form of learning disability.  Many learners who are approximately 35 or older may never have been tested for learning disabilities, and while some of your learners will be aware of their challenges, others may wrongly believe they are just not as smart as others.  For those that know they have a learning disability, it is up to them to inform you of their additional needs if they so choose.  In Canada having access to accommodation for learning disabilities is considered a human right.  Denying a learner the accommodation they may require can get you into legal trouble.

Some people argue that accommodating those with a learning disability gives an unfair advantage over others.  For example, you may provide a learner who has difficulty reading, more time to complete a written test.  In this example, the additional time is needed to comprehend the question as it is written.  The additional time you provide the learner does not give them necessarily more time to answer the questions.  I like to compare these types of accommodations to other tools we use to assist our lives.  For example it is common to wear eye glasses when you have trouble seeing or reading, yet no one would argue that wearing glasses gives those an unfair advantage.

Of course your learners with learning disabilities will still need to accomplish the learning objectives of the training.  If the model of performance is to type 40 words per minute, then the student will still need to demonstrate this by the end of the training.  Providing accommodation does not give them an unfair advantage, but rather removes or reduces any disadvantage their disability presents.  Here are some examples of accommodation you could provide in the event that someone with a learning disability requires it:
  • Course outlines to reduce the need to take notes in class
  • Copies of materials such as overheads, diagrams, PowerPoint files, etc.
  • Access to alternative testing methods (oral, or online)
  • Additional clarification of questions on tests
  • Use of a calculator during math problems
  • Extended time to complete evaluations (usually 1.5x)
  • Open book testing
  • Extra tutoring

Because so many learners with these types of disabilities will not be identified, there are some things you can do to ensure you are as accommodating as possible.  Use...
  • Easy to understand agendas so learners will know what to expect throughout the course
  • Clear instructions both written and explained verbally
  • Key concepts or terminology at the beginning of each lesson
  • Clear visuals in your printed and overhead material (images should clearly look like what they are depicting)
  • Physical examples such as models or actual items
  • Point form to increase comprehension
  • step-by-step instructions to break down tasks
  • Group work where learners get to choose specific or unique roles within the group
  • Words, pictures and sound to convey ideas (offering choices in how to learn)
  • Multimedia when possible rather than reading or lecturing
  • Job aids that can be referred to upon returning to the workplace
Here is a video that demonstrates how difficult it can be for someone who has a learning disability related to reading:




Similarily here is another video that deals with how difficult a learning dissability can affect visual information:


    Unfortunately much of the resources available online are geared for children rather than adults, however many of the accommodations can apply to both children and adults equally.

    Learning Disabilities Association of Canada http://www.ldac-taac.ca/
    Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario http://www.ldao.ca/
    Learning Disabilities Association of America http://www.ldanatl.org/