Learning Disabilities Through Time

A Brief History of Learning Disabilities, Part 1: From Napoleon to 1970

Samuel A Kirk is widely recognised as the first person to use the term “learning disability.”  He was referring to children who had normal intellectual capabilities. Their hindrance to learning was not any lack of ability regarding intelligence. These children had a brain-based disability, which negatively affected their learning faculties.

Here are his own words: I have used the term ‘learning disabilities’ to describe a group of children who have disorders in development in language, speech, reading, and associated communication skills needed for social interaction. In this group I do not include children who have sensory handicaps such as blindness or deafness, because we have methods of managing and training the deaf and the blind. I also exclude from this group children who have generalized mental retardation.” (Kirk 1963; NASET 2007)

Professor Kirk first used the term at a conference in 1963. However, the development of studies and awareness of these challenges predates that seminar. The first reference to ADHD, for example – though not in that term – may have been in a medical journal in 1902. Some trace the genesis of this enquiry even further into the past. We can already see references to what would become known as learning disabilities in the Napoleonic age.


The first recorded instance of a Learning Disability

It is generally believed the first written account of a learning disability dates before this. It was the first recorded case of a specific individual: someone with a condition giving rise to difficulties on learning. Percy F, a boy of 14 years, was described as bright and intelligent. He was quick at games and equal to his peers in every way. The only exception was that he was unable to learn to read. W. Pringle Morgan, a British physician, recorded this case. It was published in the British Medical Journal of 1896, as “A case of congenital word blindness.” Today we call this condition developmental dyslexia


Cases dating back to Napolean

But investigations find these types of disorders to predate even Morgan’s article. Over 90 years before the case of Percy F, Franz Joseph Gall saw a connection between brain injuries and expressive language disorders. Gall was an anatomist and physiologist. He was also Napoleon’s surgeon. His work into seeing this association dates to 1802. He published a book in 1822 called Sur Les Fonctions (which can translate as “On Functions”). This outlined his belief that different areas of the brain controlled various learning and memory functions.


To the end of the 19th Century

In 1877 Adolf Kussamaul coined the term “word blindness.” He was a German physician and leading clinician. He used it to describe someone whose sight was entirely normal in all other respects, but was unable to read letters. Numbers and other figures could also be a challenge.   

Ten years later, in 1887, the word dyslexia was first used. Rudolf Berlin used it to describe the condition of having great difficulty in reading and interpreting symbols. He was a German eye-doctor.

James Hinshelwood was a Scottish eye-surgeon and ophthalmologist. In 1895 he saw the difference between complete word blindness and partial impairment. This was a differentiation between alexia and dyslexia. He recorded a case of a 58-year-old man who woke up one morning, finding he couldn’t read.

Morgan’s article followed the next year. He had read Hinshelwood’s report. Percy F. was a case of someone who seemed to have had word blindness from birth.

From the beginning of the 20th Century, to 1963

A fairly obscure ophthalmologist from Cleveland published a report on childhood reading difficulties. This proved to be America’s first report on the issue, from Dr. W.E. Bruner, in 1905.

Grace Fernald entered the therapeutic field in 1909. She joined William Healy’s Juvenile Psychopathic Institution. Here she developed a method of teaching spelling and reading which aided her students visually. She did this by spelling the words out with her finger in the air. This meant that the words her students struggled with were shown to them as they tried to read them. 

Fernald’s approach was so effective that academic diagnosticians would refer students to her. Her methods were able to assist many students having difficulties. She published her extensive records in a paper in 1921. Her kinaesthetic method proved to be effective in helping word recognition.

Dr. Kurt Goldstein was the first to note what today are called learning disabilities. In the 1920’s they were referred to as the invisible handicap. Goldstein’s work is noteworthy for his holistic approach to learning. He challenged reductionist approaches and influenced Gestalt psychology.

Prof. Kirk made many valuable contributions to the field of learning difficulties. This was even before he had coined the term “learning disability.” For example, he was directly responsible for the Illinois Test of Psycholinguistic Abilities (ITPA). This is in its third edition, and still used to this day. It facilitates the assessment of a child’s abilities in a number of areas. It assists in determining if the child needs remedial assistance.

Various researchers made progress on many fronts throughout the next decades. Strauss, Lehtinen and Kephart worked together by assessing adults with brain injuries. They emphasised removing distractions from the environment for those who had learning challenges. What today is known as Strauss syndrome is named after Strauss. Lehtinen believed that by developing children’s perceptual skills their academic skills would improve. Kephart’s continued research resulted in a theory of perceptual-motor development, named after him. 


1966: Japari Opens, in South Africa

Dr Sonia Machanick founded Japari in 1966. It was named after her four children. It began as clinic in Parktown North. A member of staff, Mrs Argyle, offered to board children in her house in Bryanston. This was when the services were expanded to needy children outside Johannesburg. South Africa itself has a long history of special needs education.


The Unexpected Positive Impact of the Term “Learning Disability”

These conditions had now been recognised as disabilities. It wasn’t laziness, or any other character flaw that prevented these children from learning. These children had been put on par with other learners with overt disabilities. Children with more obvious impairments, such as blindness, had methods whereby they could be taught. Now those with recognised, though more “hidden,” disabilities could also be attended to.

It also meant that legislation could be passed to help and protect these learners. Policies could be formulated to help them. And funding could be raised to scientifically investigate the best ways to address these specific needs. Using the term “disability” helped pave the way to for advocates to promote the rights of those facing these challenges. In 1969, the American Congress passed the Children with Specific Learning Disabilities Act. It was included in the Education of the Handicapped Act of 1970.

Incredible advances have been made in the recognition and treatment of various learning impairments. Much progress has been made in ensuring that the rights of these learners are protected and improved.

But there is still much to do. Unfortunately, a lot of bias against those with learning disabilities remains. In many instances, two questions continue to defy specific answers. Defining exactly what a learning disability is, and how to know if a child has one. But thanks to the work of many researchers these answers become clearer each day. They follow in the footsteps of giants such as Franz Joseph Gall, W. Pringle Morgan and Kurt A. Goldstein.


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