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Timeline of Learning Disabilities

The learning disabilities gives a brief history of learning disabilities — from 1877 when the term “word blindness” was invented to 2005 when a gene was discovered that is connected with dyslexia.

‘Learning disabilities’ hasn’t always been a household term. We only began to discover the reasons for learning problems a little over a century ago, and many people still have to fight for rights to equal opportunities and appropriate education. This timeline tracks the history of learning disabilities, from their discovery in 1877 to our most recent laws and scientific findings.

1877 – The term “word blindness”; is coined by German neurologist Adolf Kussamaul to describe “a complete text blindness…although the power of sight, the intellect and the powers of speech are intact.”;

1887 – German physician Rudolf Berlin refines our definition of reading problems, using the term “dyslexia”; to describe a “very great difficulty in interpreting written or printed symbols.”;

1895 – Ophthalmologist James Hinshelwood describes in medical journal, The Lancet, the case of acquired word blindness, where a 58 year old man awoke one morning to discover that he could no longer read. Hinshelwood continued to study word blindness in children, and recognized the need for early identification of these children by teachers.

1896 – After reading Dr. Hinshelwood’s report, Dr. W. Pringle Morgan writes in the British Medical Journal of a 14 year old who seemed to have word blindness from birth. He was described as bright, intelligent and quick, but had great difficulty reading and spelling despite the efforts of his teachers. Morgan wrote: “The schoolmaster who has taught him for some years says that he would be the smartest lad in the school if the instruction were entirely oral.”;

1905 – The first U.S. report of childhood reading difficulties is published by Cleveland ophthalmologist Dr. W.E. Bruner.

1963 – Samuel A. Kirk is the first person to use the term “learning disability”; at a conference in Chicago.

1969 – Congress passes the Children with Specific Learning Disabilities Act, which is included in the Education of the Handicapped Act of 1970 (PL 91-230). This is the first time federal law mandates support services for students with learning disabilities.

1975 – The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142), which mandates a free, appropriate public education for all students. (This law is renamed IDEA in 1990.)

1987 – A report released by the Interagency Committee on Learning Disabilities calls for the establishment of Centers for the Study of Learning and Attention, whose sole purpose is to expand research and understanding of this issue.

1990 – The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) renames and changes PL 94-142. The term ‘disability’ replaces ‘handicap,’ and the new law requires transition services for students. Autism and traumatic brain injury are added to the eligibility list.

1996 – Dr. Guinevere Eden and her research team at the National Institute of Mental Health used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) – a process that allows us to look at the activity in living brains – to identify the regions of the brain that behave differently in dyslexics.

LD OnLine offers the first web resource for parents and teachers looking for ways to help students with learning disabilities.

1997 – IDEA is reauthorized. Regular education teachers are included in the IEP process, students have more access to the general curriculum and are included in state-wide assessments, and ADHD is added to the list of conditions that could make a child eligible for services under the category “other health impairment.”;

2004IDEA is reauthorized again. School personnel now have more authority in special education placement decisions and the new law is better aligned with the No Child Left Behind Act.

2005 – Dr. Jeffrey Gruen and his research team at Yale University identified a gene that had patterns and variations that were strongly associated with dyslexia.

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