Top Five Emotional Difficulties for People with Learning Disabilities

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1. Shame

People growing up with a learning disability often feel a sense of shame. For some, it is a great relief to receive the diagnosis while for others the label only serves to further stigmatize them. For many adults, especially older adults, an accurate diagnosis was unavailable. These individuals were frequently labeled as mentally retarded, written off as being unable to learn, and most passed through the school system without acquiring basic academic skills.

Sadly, these feelings of shame often cause the individual to hide their difficulties. Rather than risk being labeled as stupid or accused of being lazy some adults deny their learning disability as a defense mechanism. Internalized negative labels of stupidity and incompetence usually result in a poor self concept and lack of confidence (Gerber, Ginsberg, & Reiff, 1992)

Some adults feel ashamed of the type of difficulties they are struggling to cope with such as basic literacy skills, slow processing, attention difficulties, chronic forgetfulness, organizational difficulties, etc.

The following myths about learning disabilities have perpetuated the general public’s negative perception about learning disabilities:

Myth #1

People with learning disabilities have below average intelligence and cannot learn.


People with learning disabilities have average to above average intelligence (Gerber. 1998). In fact, studies indicate that as many as 33% of students with LD are gifted (Baum, 1985; Brody & Mills, 1997; Jones, 1986). With proper recognition, intervention and lots of hard work, children and adults with learning disabilities can learn and succeed!

Myth #2

Learning disabilities are just an excuse for irresponsible, unmotivated or lazy people.


Learning disabilities are caused by neurological impairments not character flaws. In fact, the National Information Centre for Adults and Youth with Disabilities makes a point of saying that that people with learning disabilities are not lazy or unmotivated (NICHCY , 2002).

Myth #3

Learning disabilities only affect children. Adults grow out of learning disabilities.


It is now known that LD continues throughout the individual’s lifespan and “may even intensify in adulthood as tasks and environmental demands change” (Michaels, 1994a). Sadly, many adults, especially older adults, have never been formally diagnosed with a learning disability. In fact, the majority of people with learning disabilities are not diagnosed until they reach adulthood (LDA, 1996)

Myth #4

dyslexia and learning disability are the same thing.


dyslexia is type of learning disability. It is not a another term for learning disability. It is a specific language based disorder affecting a person’s ability to read, write and verbally express themselves.

Unfortunately, careless use of the term has expanded it so that it has become, for some, an equivalent for “learning disability”.

Myth #5

Learning disabilities are only academic in nature. They do not affect other areas of a person’s life.


Some people with learning disabilities have isolated difficulties in reading, writing or mathematics. However, most people with learning disabilities have more than one area of difficulty. Dr. Larry Silver asserts that “learning disabilities are life disabilities”. He writes, “The same disabilities that interfere with reading, writing, and arithmetic also will interfere with sports and other activities, family life, and getting along with friends.” (Silver, 1998)

Typically, students with LD have other major difficulties in one or more of the following areas:

  • motor coordination
  • time management
  • attention
  • organizational skills
  • processing speed
  • Social skills needed to make friends and maintaining relationships
  • emotional maturation
  • verbal expression
  • memory

Many adults with learning disabilities have difficulty in performing basic everyday living tasks such as shopping, budgeting, filling out a job application form or reading a recipe. They may also have difficulty with making friends and maintaining relationships. Vocational and job demands create additional challenges for young people with learning disabilities.

Myth #6

Adults with learning disabilities cannot succeed in higher education.


More and more adults with learning disabilities are going to college or university and succeeding (Gerber and Reiff 1994). With the proper accommodations and support, adults with learning disabilities can be successful at higher education.

2. Fear

Another emotional difficulty for adults with learning disabilities is fear. This emotion is often masked by anger or anxiety. Tapping into the fear behind the anger and/or the anxiety response is often the key for adults to cope with the emotional fallout of learning disabilities.

Feelings of fear may be related one or more of the following issues:

  • fear of being found out
  • fear of failure
  • fear of judgment or criticism
  • fear of rejection

Fear of Being Found Out

Many adults with learning disabilities live with fear of being found out. They develop coping strategies to hide their disability. For example, an adult who can hardly read might pretend to read a newspaper. Other adults may develop gregarious personalities to hide their difficulties or focus on other abilities that do not present learning barriers such as carpentry, and mechanics. Unfortunately some adults will have developed negative coping strategies such as quitting their job rather than risk the humiliation of being terminated because their learning disability makes it difficult for them to keep up with work demands.

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