n Africa Education Review - Towards new understandings of learning disability

Volume 2, Issue 2
  • ISSN : 1814-6627



This article highlights inherent difficulties in defining learning disability, particularly in South Africa. It traces the evolution of the category from 'minimal brain damage' through to the more current 'learners with special educational needs' and 'learners with barriers to learning.' Different definitions or attempts to describe the phenomenon 'learning disability' are reviewed. An overview of the current international research in the field is provided with particular reference to research that attempts to define learning disability. Much of this research is framed within the medical model, which has as its foundation positivism and empiricism. This results in research which is deficit-focused; in other words the focus is on pathology. A second reductionist model fragments the phenomenon of learning disability into discrete units, each of which is researched. It is suggested that, in re-thinking learning disability, the focus shifts away from the deficit, pathology based, reductionist focus currently held across disciplines.

The problem inherent in including the notion of 'discrepancy between potential and performance' in any definition is discussed, with particular reference to the measurement of 'potential in South Africa's multicultural and multilingual learner population. The article ends with a proposal that there be a shift in focus to a panoptic view of the child: a view that takes in his strengths and talents. In so doing, the country may be better able to serve this growing population.
With the national shift towards inclusive education, there is a renewed focus on learners euphemistically called or the more 'in vogue' learners with barriers to learning. Yet what we mean when we bandy these terms about, how well we understand these learners, is questionable. The focus of this article is that sub-group of learners that educators and parents think are just not achieving as they should be achieving, despite themselves, that sub-group we identify as having 'potential' but not 'performance'; that sub-group that we just cannot quite explain, we just cannot quite understand; that sub-group for whom support ranges from placement to pills to punishment!
This article critically evaluates the current understanding of the phenomenon of learning disability as it is understood in the South African context. It begins with an overview of the international research, with particular reference to the notion of definition. Thereafter, it makes comments on the term as it is used in South Africa. In conclusion, the article proposes the need for an alternative understanding of this group of learners.

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