The existence of learning disabilities has been documented for approximately 200 years. The origins of what are currently called learning disabilities began with early attempts to match functioning within certain areas of the brain to human behavior. Early physicians noticed that patients with certain types of brain injury experienced specific types of behavioral problems. Most relevant to learning disabilities were patients with injuries to the left hemispheres of their brains, who in many cases experienced problems such as slow, laborious speech and the inability to name objects or persons. In the late 1800s, a more specific set of cases was identified in which persons’ ability to speak and write remained intact, but their ability to comprehend spoken or written words was impaired. These conditions were termed word deafness and word blindness.
From these studies, during the early 20th century, physicians began to notice children and adults who experienced what was at the time considered to be defects in their ability to recognize words and letters, despite no obvious brain damage or injury. The inference was made that perhaps these individuals suffered from some sort of neurological disorder that mimicked the effects of people with brain damage. Moreover, a number of cases appeared to run in families, providing further evidence for a possible physical cause. The medical diagnosis for this condition was congenital word blindness. Beginning around 1920, and building on this early work in medicine and neurology, a group of American pioneers including Samuel Orton, Grace Fernald, Marion Monroe, and Samuel Kirk began landmark work on understanding reading disabilities. While still clearly linked to foundations in medicine, reading disabilities were attacked by these researchers and clinicians as much from an educational perspective as from a clinical one. Indeed, some of these pioneer’s names have become synonymous with specific approaches to educational treatment for students with learning disabilities. For example, the Orton-Gillingham approach to treatment is a phonics-based, multisensory approach to instruction that uses the kinesthetic, auditory, and visual modalities for teaching decoding and spelling. Parallel to developments in educational understanding of students with these disorders, additional work was being pursued between about 1920 and 1960 on the perceptual, perceptual-motor, and attentional ağabeylities that often accompanied damage, injury, or dysfunction in persons’ brains. Physicians and psychologists such as Kurt Goldstein, Heinz Werner, Newell Kephart, and William Cruikshank conducted many research studies documenting deficits such as hyperactivity, perseveration, figure-ground confusion, and distractibility. Again, it was reasoned that if persons with documented damage to their brains exhibited perceptual and attentional problems, persons with presumed damage to these brain areas might be expected to have these problems as well.
It was between approximately 1960 and 1975 when the field of learning disabilities began emerging as a discipline unto itself. On April 6, 1963, another pioneer in the field of learning disabilities, Samuel Kirk, told a parent advocacy group for children with ‘‘perceptual handicaps’’ that ‘‘Recently, I have used the term ‘learning disability’ to describe a group of children who have disorders in development, in language, speech, reading and associated communication skills needed for social interaction. In this group, I do not include children who have sensory handicaps such as blindness or deafness, because we have methods of managing and training the deaf and blind. I also exclude from this group children who have generalized mental retardation’’ (Kirk, 1975, p. 9). Most educators attribute coinage of the term ‘‘learning disability’’ to Kirk. Moreover, some of the parents who heard Kirk’s speech in 1963 established the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities, which has now evolved into the Learning Disabilities Association of America. This organization is widely known as one of the most influential learning disabilities advocacy organization in the United States.