The Co-Occurrence of Learning Disabilities Among the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Populations
October 27, 2006
A learning disability as defined by the Learning Disability Association of America (2005) is a neurological disorder
that affects a person's ability to store, process or produce information. Individuals with learning disabilities are
usually of average to above average intelligence and may display difficulties in the areas of reading, writing,
speaking, spelling and math. These individuals may also have difficulties with attention, coordination, memory,
social skills, and emotional maturity. Learning disabilities may also co-occur with visual, hearing, motor or
behavioral disabilities but the two are separate and distinct disorders.
Assessing for learning disabilities in the deaf and hard of hearing populations can be quite challenging. Hearing
loss can derive from a vast array of etiologies, and its specific cause, time of onset, degree and frequency of loss,
and the nature of early interventions all can affect the development of audition as well as other brain structures and
functions (Calderon, 1998). In contrast, the individual with a sensorineural etiology of hearing impairment is
potentially a normal learner in other respects, with a normal ability to process, store and produce information
through the other senses.
The neurological etiologies of hearing loss lead to a three times higher rate for the deaf and hard of hearing
population to experience other disabilities. Of the three disabilities most often reported in children who are deaf
and hard of hearing (learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities and emotional/behavioral disabilities), the
largest co-occurring disability in the deaf and hard of hearing population is learning disability at a prevalence of
9% (Pollack, 1997).
For deaf and hard of hearing individuals, the hearing loss itself creates learning difficulties in the area of delayed
language acquisition and as a consequence delayed academic skills. According to statistical information gathered by
Gallaudet University, only about 40% of the 17-21 year olds in their research pool were able to read at a fourth grade
level or above (Allen, 1994). Keeping this in mind, the deaf and hard of hearing population should display academic
growth and achievement in relation to their deaf and hard of hearing peers. If academic achievement is not
progressing within this language delay parameter, and atypical patterns of learning are exhibited, further assessment
Because characteristics displayed by deaf and hard of hearing individuals with co-occurring disabilities are often the
same, skilled assessment by an interdisciplinary team is highly important. Differential diagnosis is also critical in
accurately determining the co-occurrence of a learning disability and to rule out the possibility of intellectual
disability and emotional/behavioral disability. Learning disability assessment should be conducted by an evaluator
who is not only qualified to evaluate for specific learning disabilities but who also have additional training and
experience in the assessment of learning difficulties in the deaf and hard of hearing populations. These
professionals may include; clinical or educational psychologists, learning disability spe cialists, medical doctors
and other professionals.
The research indicates that there is reason to expect that the deaf and hard of hearing populations may be at an
increased risk for learning disabilities than the hearing population. Deaf and hard of hearing individuals who
display atypical patterns of learning in comparison to their peers should be evaluated by professionals skilled in
assessing for co-occurring disabilities. Unfortunately, under identification of learning disabilities with the deaf
and hard of hearing populations continue to occur, despite efforts by professionals who work with these individuals to
Allen, T. E. (1994). Who are the Deaf and Hard-of-hearing Students Leaving High School and Entering Postsecondary
Education? Retrieved on October 19, 2006 from
Calderon, R. (1998). Learning Disability, Neuropsychology, and Deaf Youth: Theory, Research, and Practice.
Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 3(1), 1-3.
Defining Learning Disabilities. (2005). Retrieved October 24, 2006 from
Elliott, H., Glass, L. & Evans, J.W. (Eds.). (1987). Mental Health Assessment of Deaf Clients: A Practical Manual.
Boston, Mass: College Hill Press.
Pollack, B.J. (1987). Educating Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing: Additional Learning Problems.
ERIC EC Digest, E548. Retrieved October 19, 2006 from http://ericec.org/digests/e548.html.