What Is The Difference Between Learning Disabilities and Learning Differences?

What’s the difference between learning disabilities and learning differences? Does it matter?


I have been thinking about this a lot lately. 

My youngest son continues to struggle academically, in ways that go way beyond helping him learn in a different way.

We have tried every single approach I can think of:

educational therapy

hands-on learning

standard curriculum 

specialized curriculum

educational therapy again, this time online

more hands-on learning

and so on and so on…

He has made significant progress. There’s no doubt that he can now recognize letters and some words. He is 13 and reading at about a second grade reading level – much better than the preK readers from just a few years ago.

So, yes, he is learning.

But do his struggles indicate something that will be “disabling” as he gets older?


learning differences and learning disabilities


It’s feels foreign for me to even ask this question.

I am his mom. I am his advocate. I am the one that believes in him, even when no one else seems to.

I am his person and his best hope for success. 

It feels like a betrayal to even wonder – what if he isn’t able to be successful on his own, because of his learning differences, disabilities, or whatever we decide to call them?

learning differences vs. learning disabilities

What Is The Difference Between Learning Disabilities and Learning Differences?

I decided to do a little research to hopefully calm my fears. Interestingly enough, there are a ton of discussions around this very topic.  In fact, there are actual definitions of both that help determine which term to use and why.

Learning Disabilities

Disability is actually a legal term used to provide protection and accommodation. For our children, this is most likely a term to be used in the context of educational settings and to gain access to services. 

Learning Disorders

In my reading, I also found the term “disorder” used quite frequently, but only in the context of medical diagnosis. Learning disorders of reading, writing, mathematics, etc. are a part of the DSM-V and used for diagnosis in conjunction with neuro-psych evaluations. 

Learning Differences

I am most likely to refer to my son’s learning challenges as differences, but the truth is, differences don’t get my son the services, accommodations and attention he needs in settings outside our home. 

Just as true however is the fact that neurodiversity is real and we all have differences in terms of how and when we learn certain functions.

I appreciated this summary from the National Center For Learning Disabilities ~

If “disability” is a legal term, and “disorder” is a medical term, why do some people say a struggling child just has “learning differences”? Did this term arise out of pity or a misguided sense of political correctness? The first thing to know many experts believe the word “difference” doesn’t accurately describe the challenges posed by conditions like dyslexia. Nevertheless, a growing body of evidence arising out of the field of neurodiversity has revealed that there is a very wide range of variability in the human brain. Some of these variations, while causing difficulties in particular areas like reading, can also bring capabilities in other areas. Some believe it’s inaccurate to assume that one person’s wiring is pathological while another’s is “normal,” when the truth is we are simply different.

learning differences vs. learning disabilities


Does It Matter If We Say Learning Difference or Disability?

The truth is, when it comes to my son, all three terms are applicable depending on the context.

With his developmental pediatrician, it’s disorder.

With the educational therapist, it’s disability.

In the context of our home and daily function, it’s difference. 

Does it matter what I think about it? I am sure the answer is no. 



The more I research and learn, the more I come back to what I know to be true in my heart.

It isn’t the outcome so much as the showing up, and taking the next step and the next. It’s trying again, even when it feels impossible. It’s not allowing the discouragement to trick us into giving up.

It’s reminding myself that it doesn’t matter the ease or speed at which my son is learning. It matters that he is learning. 

Homeschooling a child with learning differences encouragement and support:

What It’s Really Like When Your Child Is Below Grade Level

What It’s Really Like When Your Child Has An IEP



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  1. Betty Rigdon says:

    I would like to share a verse from the Bible that is my motto for home school and life. It has given me great comfort and encouragement as I seek to raise and school my precious grandsons whom are both on the autism spectrum. Genesis 33:14 the part of the verse that stood out to me was: and I will lead on softly, according as the cattle that goeth before me and the children be able to endure, …etc the key words for me are lead on softly and the children be able to endure. I hope you find encouragement in the words also.
    Thank you so much for your inspiration blog!!

    1. I love this. Thank you so much for sharing.

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