How Many Adults Really Have Learning Disabilities?

By: Susan A. Vogel

Susan A. Vogel

There is a growing body of reliable data that indicate that learning disabilities (LD) in adults are a wide-spread problem. Until recently, we have only had estimates of the incidence of adults with LD in specific segments of the population including various formal and informal educational and workplace training settings. Some estimates have been alarmingly high. For example, the United States Employment and Training Administration (1991) estimated that between 15-23% of Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) title IIA recipients may have a learning disability. Based on the Department of Labor observations, the percent of adults with LD increases to between 50-80% among those reading below the 7 th grade level (U.S. Department of Labor, 1991).

National databases

Additional perspectives on the prevalence of LD in adults are provided by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), and the American Council on Education (ACE). The NCES and ACE regularly report national statistics regarding the incidence of self-reported learning disabilities (SRLD) in a national, representative sample. The NCES reports on full-time freshmen with SRLD as well as graduate/ professional school students (U.S. Department of Education, 1994), while the ACE reports only on fulltime, first time college freshmen (Henderson, 1995). The ACE data are part of a larger study of college freshmen conducted every three years by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at the University of California-Los Angeles.

While the percent of students with self-reported (SR) disabilities other than LD has remained almost constant since 1978, the percent of students with SRLD increased from 1.6% in 1985 to 3% in 1994. When the prevalence was examined according to type of degree-granting institution, both Henderson and the U.S. Dept. of Education reported a much higher rate of students with SRLD in 2-year colleges than those attending public or private universities/colleges.

The national LD data bank

A third national, collegiate database (Vogel, Leonard, Scales, Hayeslip, Hermansen, & Donnells, 1998) was designed to determine the incidence of students with documented learning disabilities enrolled in various types of postsecondary institutions (PSIs) drawn randomly from the total list of approximately 3,000 PSI's divided by Carnegie classification (e.g., size, type, independent/public, degrees granted, grant money). The sample included undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools from the most highly selective to open admissions institutions. What is of interest to us here is that this study reported the incidence of students with documented LD on these different types of campuses. Unlike the ACE and the National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education databases, the incidence of LD on the various types of campuses was not based on self- report since all participating institutions required documentation of a disability in order to provide accommodations and/or services (Vogel et al., 1998). Though they reported that, on the average, 2.6% of the student body had documented LD, the percent of students with LD varied from one-half percent in the most highly selective institutions to 10% in open admissions colleges. Using this national database and that of the ACE, it is clear that prevalence rates vary significantly by institution type, size of the student body, and degrees offered. However, it is very important to keep in mind that these national data bases represent only one segment of the total population of adults with LD, i.e., those who enroll in a postsecondary institution. What do we know about the incidence of LD in the general population of' adults?

The National Adult Literacy Survey

The first national database on adults in the general population was in response to the Adult Education Amendments of 1988 that required that the U.S. Department of Education assess the literacy proficiency and practices of adults in the nation. The National Center for Education Statistics was then charged with the task of identifying concretely the basic educational skills needed for literate functioning and in conjunction with the Education Testing Service developed the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS). The survey was administered to a national representative sample of 26,000 individuals 16 years or older. It included direct assessment of literacy skills and activities, language background, educational and work experiences, health problems, and disabilities, if any. In regard to health problems and disabilities, participants were asked whether they had a physical, mental, or other health condition that kept them from participating fully in work, school, housework, or other activities. Twelve percent said "yes" to the above question and were then asked a series of follow-up questions to determine the specific disability. In response, three percent of the participants said they had a learning disability.

Based on the previous estimates of LD in adults reviewed above, the percent of adults in the nation with SRLD who responded to the NALS on first glance seems very low especially in light of the previous estimates described above and the annual national child count statistics in which the percentage of school-age individuals with LD ages 6-17 who receive services is about 5% ( U.S. Department of Education, 1995). Given that the adults in this database were ages 16 and older, and many of them were not in school when IDEA mandated "search and screen" for children with disabilities, many of these adults were probably unaware that their reading difficulties are due to a learning disability.

Two other estimates of the prevalence of SRLD were determined when the SRLD group who responded to the NALS was divided by literacy proficiency and by educational attainment. The prevalence rate among those with the poorest literacy skills and those who completed less than eight years of school increased 4-5 fold to between 10% and 15% respectively, which is certainly more similar to the 15-20% prevalence estimates of dyslexia based on clinical and research - identification (Reder, 1995; Lyon, 1995; Vogel & Reder, 1998).

The Washington and Kansas state studies

The most recent attempts to answer this question focused on yet a different segment of the population, namely, adults who were receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) previously called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and those who participated in the Job Opportunities Basic Skills programs (JOBS) (Giovengo, Moore, Young, 1998; The State of Kansas Learning Disability Initiative, 1998). The projects were designed along similar lines in order to provide cross-validation of their findings. Not surprisingly, the prevalence rate for adults with LD among TANF recipients was approximately 30% in both states. Thus, by adding poverty and under-employment or unemployment along with low literacy functioning and educational attainment, the prevalence of LD doubles, i.e., from 15% to 30%.

In summary, we have seen that there is no one prevalence rate, but rather a variety of rates based on which segment of the adult population is scrutinized, which age range, and in which setting they are located. Some of the pioneering work of adult literacy educators and LD specialists provided us with estimates of the incidence of LD among participants in a variety of literacy settings. The National LD Data Bank allowed us to compare the prevalence of students with LD in different types of colleges and universities, both undergraduates and graduate students (e.g., 2-year colleges, colleges/universities). The NALS database allowed us to determine the prevalence of SRLD in adults in the nation and also when grouped by literacy proficiency and educational attainment. And the Kansas and Washington State initiatives allowed us to look at the prevalence rate of LD among recipients of TANF. What we have learned is that there is no one answer regarding the prevalence rate, but rather a range depending on the parameters described above. Thus, by comparing the different data bases, we are in a better position to answer the question posed in this brief overview and to understand the reasons for the differences in reported prevalence rates. Now that we know the scope of the problem, the "big" question is what are the recommended next steps for practitioners, diagnosticians, adult educators, literacy providers, LD specialists, and adults with LD themselves in order to achieve higher levels of education, literacy, selfesteem, self-sufficiency, and life satisfaction.

About the Author: Susan A. Vogel, Ph. D., is professor of special education in the Educational Psychology, Counseling, and Special Education Department at Northern Illinois University and is currently President of the International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities. She has served on several national boards including the National Institute for Literacy in Washington DC, and The International Dyslexia Association, and is on the editorial board of many journals including IDA's Annals of Dyslexia. Her research interests include faculty attitude and practices toward students with LD in higher education, college LD support services, and postschool outcomes.

This article is adapted with permission from Vogel, S. A. (1998). Adults with learning disabilities. In S. A. Vogel & S. Reder (Eds.), Learning disabilities, literacy, and adult education (pp. 5-28). Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., P.O. Box 10624, Baltimore, MD 21285-0624, (800)638-3775, fax:(410)337-8539.

Learning Disabilities, Literacy, and Adult Education Edited by Susan A. Vogel, Ph.D., & Stephen Reder, Ph.D.

Paul H. Brookes Publishing 1998 ISBN 1557663475

This book focuses on adults with severe learning disabilities (LD) and the educators who work with them. Combining cutting-edge research findings with firsthand instructional expertise, the authors examine the various screening procedures used to identify learning disabilities, present a range of instructional strategies and staff development programs for teaching literacy skills to adults, and showcase exemplary programs that assist adults with LD to find the right job and to be successful. Sample forms, checklists, resource lists, and examples from successful staff preparation programs make this in-depth book an invaluable resource for educators, reading and learning disability specialists, literacy professionals, and administrators.



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Giovengo, M., Moore, E., & Young, G. (1998). Screening and assessment results of the learning disabilities initiative: Identification of individuals with learning disabilities in the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Program. In S.A. Vogel & S. Reder (Eds.), Learning disabilities, literacy, and adult education (pp. Brookes.179-194). Baltimore, MD: Paul H.Brookes.

Henderson, C. (1995). College freshmen with disabilities: A triennial statistical Profile. Washington DC: American Council on Education and HEATH Resource Center.

Lyon, G. R. (1995). Research initiatives in learning disabilities: Contributions from scientists supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Journal of Child Neurology, 10 (Suppl. 1), S 120-S 126.

Reder, S. (1995). Literacy, education, and learning disabilities. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.

U.S. Department of Education. (1995). Seventeenth annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Washington, DC: Author.

Vogel, S. A., Leonard, F., Scales, W., Hayeslip, P., & Hermanson, J. (1998). The National LD Data Bank: An overview. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 31(3), 234-247.

Vogel, S. A., & Reder, S. (1998). Educational attainment of adults with learning disabilities. In S.A. Vogel & S. Reder (Eds.), Learning disabilities, literacy, and adult education. (pp. 43- 68). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Susan A. Vogel, Ph.D. Professor of Special Education Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL. Reprinted with permission from The International Dyslexia Association 49th Annual Conference Commemorative Booklet November 1998