Understanding how common learning disabilities are is important for two reasons:
- It helps increase awareness of the importance of early identification.
- It allows us to provide interventions to support individuals before they are negatively impacted.
Yet, the answer to this question, “How common are learning disabilities?” is not straightforward. Different sources report incidences as varied as 2.8 – 20% of a population.
So, what is the incident rate? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question. Understanding the varied responses to this question tells us much about the experience of those with learning disabilities and where educational and advocacy efforts should be focused.
Let’s start unpacking the data.
Understanding learning disabilities
Data on learning disabilities comes from various sources depending on your province/territory/state or country. In Canada, various sources report data on the incidence of learning disabilities. Some provinces, such as Ontario, report against each specific Ministry designation (for example, learning disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder, or Visual Impairment). This report clearly shows the number of children with a diagnosed learning disability. However, BC lists only the total number of students with a designation. As there are 12 distinct designations in BC, the data does not report on the number of students with a learning disability designation in BC as a unique number.
Fortunately, at the federal level in Canada, there is an increased focus on capturing the rates of disabilities, and recent data tells a compelling story.
Rates of learning disabilities in Canada
Two recent data sources offer significant insight into the rate of learning disabilities in Canada.
- Measuring disabilities in Canada (2017). This national survey provides data on ten types of disabilities impacting Canadians aged 15 and older. The incidence rate for learning disabilities for Canadians over 15 years of age was 17.9% (19.7% male/16.1% female).
- Canadian Health Survey on Children and Youth (2019). This national survey compiled data on the health characteristics of children and youth aged 1-17 years. It included the incidence rate of learning disabilities or learning disorders for children and youth ages 5-17. Canadian school-aged children that have a learning disability/disorder is 8.4% (10.6% male/6.1% female), or 422,300.
Given that a learning disability is neuro-developmental , the almost 10% difference in the incidence rates can seem surprising, especially given the two-year age overlap between the populations surveyed. How can we interpret these results? And what does this data tell us about the experience of Canadians with learning differences?
What does the data tell us?
The almost 10% difference in incidence rates between school-aged children and youth and youth/adults aged 15 years and older is connected to the early identification of learning disabilities. The data above and Provincial educational data are concerned with individuals with a diagnosed, not suspected, learning disability.
Why is the distinction between diagnosed and suspected learning disabilities significant? It is important because many learners remain in the suspected rather than diagnosed category due to a lack of funding for students with learning disabilities in Canada’s public and independent schooling systems. Many students who have suspected learning disabilities wait years to receive a psychoeducational assessment that confirms a diagnosis. These assessments are administered by a psychologist and cost between $2000-$3500 (CAN). The cost of these necessary assessments poses significant barriers to individuals and families attempting to access these assessments both within and outside the school system.
Learning disabilities can be identified as early as late kindergarten or grade 1. Yet, as we can see in the data above, the identification rates for children and youth under 15 are much lower than for individuals aged 15 plus. So, while the exact incidence rate of learning disabilities in Canada may be difficult to determine, the data tells us that there are significant issues with the early identification of learning disabilities. Early identification is essential to minimize the negative impacts of learning disabilities. Thousands of Canadian children and youth are waiting years to receive needed support. Missing early identification negatively impacts individuals’ self-confidence and academic and life trajectories. Early evidenced-based interventions significantly reduce these impacts.
Be it 1 in 10, 1 in 15, or 1 in 20, individuals with learning disabilities need specialized support and strategies to thrive in their learning and grow in their confidence as learners. Building awareness and advocacy for these learners and the need for early assessment and intervention is paramount.
– Jennifer Fane, Director of Education
LDS is a community of dedicated professionals that write collaboratively. We recognize the contribution of unnamed team members for their wisdom and input.