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  • Hammill Institute on Disabilities

    The Politics of Learning DisabilitiesAuthor(s): Kenneth A. Kavale and Steven R. FornessSource: Learning Disability Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 4, The Politics of Learning Disabilities(Autumn, 1998), pp. 245-273Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.Stable URL: .Accessed: 16/06/2014 01:02

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    Kenneth A. Kavale and Steven R. Forness


    The field of learning disabilities (LD) is inherently political. That politics is integral to the LD field should not be surprising since LD was, to a significant extent, a political cre- ation. The development and implementation of LD programs and services required signifi- cant political action. Although initiated through political action, the LD concept was based on a scientific foundation outlining a concept that described a particular form of learning problem. As is the case with most phenomena in the behavioral sciences, LD was ultimately a creation of scientific and political forces.

    A primary difficulty presently appears to be the imbalance between the scientific and polit- ical sides of LD, with the scales heavily tipped in favor of the political. With the political pre- dominant, policy decisions are primarily based on ideology and philosophy at the expense of the logical and rational represented in scien- tific decision making. Neither basis for deci- sion making is exclusive, and right reason is best achieved through considering both scien- tific and political aspects. A totally scientific LD may become too rigid and narrow, and unresponsive to real-world contingencies. On the other hand, a totally political LD may lack clarity and definition, and be too responsive to real-world contingencies. Consequently, LD requires a balance; its proper role is best described as a scientific entity meeting real- world demands.

    The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that this balance has been lost, and that LD presently possesses a much more exclusive political character than may be appropriate. The political manifestations have taken a vari- ety of forms and have created a number of dif- ficulties.


    The LD Concept We have argued that the problems in the LD

    field are primarily intellectual in nature and are evidenced in a failure to achieve a real under- standing of LD (see Kavale & Forness, 1985, 1995). This failure is not the result of a lack of the requisite information. In fact, LD research ranks among the best in special education in terms of its sophistication of design and analysis, but it has not coalesced into a comprehensive and unified per- spective. Consequently, we "know" more than we "understand," which has resulted in the rather embarrassing situation of not being able to answer a rather fundamental question: What is a learing disability?

    Although LD is a relatively new category, the concept is not new, and it is possible to answer the question: What was a learning disability sup- posed to be? Historical analyses of LD (e.g., Kavale & Forness, 1995; Wiederholt, 1974) all point to an important consideration: LD was originally conceived as a discrete classification whose parameters included, not generalized learning failure, but particular problems related to academic learning.

    Within this context, two concepts are impor- tant considerations. The first is "unexplained learning failure" as embodied in the notion of underachievement. For the particular student in question, the perceived learning failure was not expected; everything else being equal, there was little reason to believe that the student would encounter difficulties in academic learning. The

    KENNETH A. KAVALE, Ph.D., is Professor of Special Education, University of Iowa.

    STEVENR. FORNESS, Ed.D., is Professor and Chief of Psychological Services, Neuropsychiatric Institute, University of California, Los Angeles.

    Volume 21, Fall 1998 245

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  • second concept relates to the nature of the con- dition embodied in the notion of "specific," which suggested two things: neurological dysfunction and processing deficits. The etiology of the con- dition was presumed to be neurological involve- ment ranging from actual damage to more sub- clinical types of dysfunction. The neurological dysfunction had, as its most direct manifestation, a variety of psychological processing deficits that interfered with the acquisition, assimilation, and storage of information. The processing deficits were the reason for academic problems in read- ing, writing, and math, for example. Thus, LD was presumed specific with respect to a discrete number of processing problems resulting from neurological dysfunction that ultimately interfered with academic performance. The resulting prob- lems did not represent a generalized failure like that found in mental retardation (MR), but aver- age cognitive abilities that were being interfered with because of specific processing deficits or deficits that were at least presumed to affect only specific areas of functioning.

    Thus, LD was created as a discrete category to describe academic problems, particularly under- achievement, that resulted from specific deficits. Conceptually, LD differed from MR with respect to IQ level (LD was not associated with below- average intellectual performance) and an ability profile indicating both strengths and weaknesses rather than the flat and depressed profile associ- ated with MR. The focus on academic problems, rather than behavior problems, differentiated LD from emotional or behavior disorders (E/BD). Thus, LD, as the newest category in special edu- cation, fit a niche by describing a classification of neurologically based learning disorders that result- ed primarily from a variety of processing deficits. Thus, specific LD was a circumscribed category describing a particular form of underachievement and not a general form of low achievement.

    The problems, however, were the difficulties in validating the notions of neurological dysfunction and processing deficits (particularly the poor relia- bilities and validities of perceptual-motor tests, the major processes emphasized in the early develop- ment of LD). Slowly, these basic foundation con- cepts of LD were abandoned in favor of the more readily (and conveniently) documented under- achievement in the form of discrepancy (see Kavale, 1987). Although discrepancy denotes a dif- ference between expected and actual achievement,

    there was inexorable movement towards an emphasis on the actual achievement part of the equation that in all cases of LD is depressed and below average. Thus, the concept of underachieve- ment, critical for LD conceptualization, was essen- tially replaced by low achievement, a condition manifested theoretically by 50% of the population. As foundation concepts of LD were ignored, classi- fication increasingly became predicated on poor academic performance alone, and other factors (e.g., neurological dysfunction, process deficits, underachievement) were as-sumed rather than explicitly validated. Under such circumstances, it is easy to see how the LD concept lost its integrity, and an increasing number of students became eligible under these limited and less-than-rigorous criteria. The LD Problem

    The consequences of the loss of integrity in the LD concept are found in a failure to have confi- dence in who is designated LD. In turn, the integrity problems reduce confidence in research findings because of the problems related to exter- nal validity. Are the subjects being studied truly LD? Can we legitimately generalize findings to other LD subjects? With answers to these ques- tions often in the negative, research in LD becomes limited, and enhancing the concept becomes problematic. Research findings, under such circumstances, become independent and isolated and do not contribute to greater under- standing of the LD concept. A peculiar situation is created whereby more research results in less understanding, which is not the hallmark of a sci- entifically sound concept. Without a more focused concept, there exists an inherent vague- ness whereby LD means whatever we want it to mean. Thus, with the loss of a scientific founda- tion to provide a logical and rational base, LD becomes increasingly vulnerable to political man- ifestations that may be in conflict with the scien- tific foundation. A tension is created that results in dissension and debate about the very nature of the condition-a situation that is desc