Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) 2004

By Linda Smith, Parent Consultant, Utah Parent Center

A specific learning disability (SLD) is a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to receive, process, store and respond to information.  The student with a specific learning disability may have below-average to average to above-average intelligence.  However, the student has problems obtaining academic knowledge and understanding specific skill areas, which causes the student to struggle in school and not keep up with his/her peers.  Learning disabilities are not visible so they often go unrecognized.  Having a specific learning disability does not mean a student can’t learn.  It just means the student may have to learn in different ways from peers and with specific instruction and strategies.  Research has shown that the use of short ongoing assessments of the student’s response to high quality, research-based general education instruction, matched with increased intensity of services as needed, along with accommodations, can help students succeed. 

In education, one area where the term “specific learning disability” is used is to describe a group of problems that a student has with understanding or using language, spoken or written.  A student with a specific learning disability may have difficulty with reading, writing, spelling, or doing math problems.  “Specific learning disability” refers to several disorders.  You may have heard of dyslexia, a term sometimes used for a specific learning disability that affects reading. 

Utah follows the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA 2004) description   of specific learning disability.  In IDEA 2004, the definition of specific learning disability and the methods for determining eligibility are important in that they affect who is eligible for special education services, what those services will be, and who will pay for them.  Before IDEA 2004, schools based specific learning disability deter­mination on the difference between a student’s IQ level and the level of achievement in specific academic skill areas such as math or reading. This “discrepancy requirement” has been questioned for some time, because students must struggle or fail for long periods of time before the student shows sufficiently large deficits in academic achievement to satisfy the “severe discrepancy” requirement and begins to receive special education services.

Re­cent research and practice now encourages schools to take a broader look at the student when determin­ing whether the student has a specific learning disability and to use Response To Intervention (RTI) methods in the regular classroom.  RTI allows the school to act immediately if a student is struggling.  The RTI model encourages the school team, which includes the parents, to ask several questions before determining if the student has a specific learning disability such as: 

  •   What is the student’s attention span and behavior? 
  •   Is English the student’s primary language? 
  •   Was the curriculum research based and proven to work with students? 
  •   Is the teacher using the prescribed materials? 
  •   Does the student make progress when provided proven instructional practices?
  •   What interventions were added and did the student make progress? 
  •   What data has been collected to show if the student has made or has not made improvement? 

 Following is the definition of Specific Learning Disabilities from IDEA 2004: 

 Specific Learning Disabilities – Definition(§300.8(c) (10))

(No change from the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA)

“A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.

Specific learning disability does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, motor disabilities; intellectual disability; emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.”

Utah’s Special Education Rules can be found on the Utah State Office of Education (USOE), Special Education website.  These revised and approved rules incorporate the changes in the federal law and regulations.  They are available in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.  The USOE has also issued  Specific Learning Disability Guidelines to assist educators and parents when addressing the needs of students suspected of having a specific learning disability.  These guidelines can also be found on the USOE website at http://www.schools.utah.gov/.