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Learning Disabilities and The Deaf


The Co-Occurrence of Learning Disabilities Among the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Populations

Christina Gibbs

October 27, 2006


A learning disability as defined by the Learning Disability Association of America (2005) is a neurological disorder that affects a person's ability to store, process or produce information.  Individuals with learning disabilities are usually of average to above average intelligence and may display difficulties in the areas of reading, writing, speaking, spelling and math.  These individuals may also have difficulties with attention, coordination, memory, social skills, and emotional maturity.  Learning disabilities may also co-occur with visual, hearing, motor or behavioral disabilities but the two are separate and distinct disorders. 

Assessing for learning disabilities in the deaf and hard of hearing populations can be quite challenging.  Hearing loss can derive from a vast array of etiologies, and its specific cause, time of onset, degree and frequency of loss, and the nature of early interventions all can affect the development of audition as well as other brain structures and functions (Calderon, 1998).  In contrast, the individual with a sensorineural etiology of hearing impairment is potentially a normal learner in other respects, with a normal ability to process, store and produce information through the other senses.

The neurological etiologies of hearing loss lead to a three times higher rate for the deaf and hard of hearing population to experience other disabilities.  Of the three disabilities most often reported in children who are deaf and hard of hearing (learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities and emotional/behavioral disabilities), the largest co-occurring disability in the deaf and hard of hearing population is learning disability at a prevalence of 9% (Pollack, 1997). 

For deaf and hard of hearing individuals, the hearing loss itself creates learning difficulties in the area of delayed language acquisition and as a consequence delayed academic skills.  According to statistical information gathered by Gallaudet University, only about 40% of the 17-21 year olds in their research pool were able to read at a fourth grade level or above (Allen, 1994).  Keeping this in mind, the deaf and hard of hearing population should display academic growth and achievement in relation to their deaf and hard of hearing peers.   If academic achievement is not progressing within this language delay parameter, and atypical patterns of learning are exhibited, further assessment maybe warranted.

Because characteristics displayed by deaf and hard of hearing individuals with co-occurring disabilities are often the same, skilled assessment by an interdisciplinary team is highly important.  Differential diagnosis is also critical in accurately determining the co-occurrence of a learning disability and to rule out the possibility of intellectual disability and emotional/behavioral disability.  Learning disability assessment should be conducted by an evaluator who is not only qualified to evaluate for specific learning disabilities but who also have additional training and experience in the assessment of learning difficulties in the deaf and hard of hearing populations.  These professionals may include; clinical or educational psychologists, learning disability spe cialists, medical doctors and other professionals.

The research indicates that there is reason to expect that the deaf and hard of hearing populations may be at an increased risk for learning disabilities than the hearing population.  Deaf and hard of hearing individuals who display atypical patterns of learning in comparison to their peers should be evaluated by professionals skilled in assessing for co-occurring disabilities.  Unfortunately, under identification of learning disabilities with the deaf and hard of hearing populations continue to occur, despite efforts by professionals who work with these individuals to increase awareness.




Allen, T. E.  (1994).  Who are the Deaf and Hard-of-hearing Students Leaving High School and Entering Postsecondary Education?  Retrieved on October 19, 2006 from


Calderon, R. (1998).  Learning Disability, Neuropsychology, and Deaf Youth:  Theory, Research, and Practice.  Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 3(1), 1-3.


Defining Learning Disabilities.  (2005).  Retrieved October 24, 2006 from


Elliott, H., Glass, L. & Evans, J.W. (Eds.). (1987). Mental Health Assessment of Deaf Clients: A Practical Manual.  Boston, Mass: College Hill Press.


Pollack, B.J. (1987).  Educating Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing:  Additional Learning Problems.  ERIC EC Digest, E548.  Retrieved October 19, 2006 from

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