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Learning Disabilities: Silent Barriers to Success

By Holly Roe, Executive Director of the LD Edge Network

You may know the stereotypes that stigmatize adults in poverty:

  • He’s just lazy.
  • She’s always giving up – how can she succeed if she keeps doing that?
  • He’s just not motivated.
  • They should’ve stayed in high school and finished.
  • His behavior wasn’t conducive to good academic success. He was always getting in trouble. Now he’s regretting it.
  • I don’t want to help them – they’re unreliable and give up too easily.
  • She never was smart – it’s not surprising.
  • He was always taken out of class. He’ll probably never really get too far.

These are just a few of the ideas that some people have about adults in poverty, usually based off of a person’s perceptions and interpretations of an individual’s behavior.

What the average person doesn’t know is that these perceived behaviors are often just symptoms of what’s really going on: an undiagnosed learning disability. Education is crucial for escaping poverty, and for many, learning disabilities are the key to understanding and reclaiming their educations.

A learning disability (LD) is a silent barrier that’s keeps many people in poverty captive, because those adults don’t know they’re different, or why they can’t learn as quickly as everyone else. The key to the last sentence is the phrase, “can’t learn as quickly as everyone else.” If we want to help families prosper, we need to look at undiagnosed learning disabilities as one cause of poverty and realize it will take time to address.


“They sat me down in a waiting room with a test, with other people hanging around, and a video of legal information I needed to hear on a TV monitor above me. I thought, ‘My gosh, if I had a learning disability, I’d never be able to finish this test!'”


Sure, an adult with an LD can still walk, talk, get on a bus, pay bills, make dinner, get a job…. Wait. Get a job? Maybe. This is more of a deterrent than most people realize. A person with an LD may not be able to get a job if they can’t read the words on an application, or if they’re being tested for math skills and they need more time to process the equation.

One day, I went into a job placement company and asked them to help me find a job. They sat me down in a waiting room with a test, with other people hanging around, and a video of legal information I needed to hear on a TV monitor above me. I thought, “My gosh, if I had a learning disability, I’d NEVER be able to finish this test, let alone do well on it!” The job placement personnel were completely unaware of the unequal playing field they had produced for an adult with an LD by creating so many distractions.

People with learning disabilities can learn. They are intelligent, and they are motivated. Adults with an LD really do see words and numbers differently, and just need more time to process information. But how do you identify someone with an LD if you can’t see it?

Here are some clues to look for:

  • Educational history
    Did the person get extra help in school? An Individual Education Plan (IEP) is a plan that’s only written up for students who test in the range of slow cognitive and processing speeds consistent with a learning disability. This plan outlines a student’s strengths and weakness and how to approach learning most effectively, as well as sets up goals for learning.

    Ask the person you’re working with if they ever had an IEP. What about a shadow, or special classes? Ask those questions as well.  Some don’t know what an IEP is or why they received the extra help they did. They only know someone helped them out in class (a shadow), or they were taken out of class to receive extra instruction.

  • Trouble processing different kinds of information
    Are they doing fine in math, but can’t get social studies or science? This shows cognitive ability, but an inability to process information they’re reading.
  • Differences between writing and speaking
    Are they eloquent speakers, but can’t write a paragraph? They could have a writing disorder, which often walks beside a reading disorder.

Unfortunately, most services for a person with a specific learning disability are discontinued after age 18, and the IEP expires. However, this is not a condition one grows out of; it affects learning in school and on the job for the rest of one’s life. Each adult with an LD needs to understand what they have, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what accommodations will be necessary for their success.

Later this month, we’ll talk about what’s involved with diagnosing a learning disability and how the LD Edge Network can help adults be successful in learning at any age.


The LD Edge Network is a Cleveland nonprofit that sets the stage to offer affordable diagnostic services, workshops, and other intervention practices to help elevate the educational levels and workplace skills of each individual. Seeds of Literacy and the LD Edge Network partner to provide services to adult students who may have learning disabilities.