Adults with Learning Disabilities: The Discouraging Results

The number of reports on the status of adults with learning disabilities has increased considerably in recent years. Typically, researchers have asked adults with learning disabilities to describe their occupational, social, educational, and/or emotional status.

The results from the majority of the studies conducted to date are discouraging, raising questions about the efficacy of special education services.1 Patton and Polloway noted that the scenario for many adults with learning disabilities is “characterized by unemployment and/or underemployment, low pay, part-time work, frequent job changes, nonengagement with the community, limitations in independent functioning, and limited social lives.”Below are a few examples:

In a survey of 911 high school graduates with learning disabilities, Sitlington and Frank (1990) reported that though 50% of their sample had enrolled in a postsecondary program, only 7% were still in school one year later.3

Blackorby and Wagner (1996) reported that only 14% of youth with learning disabilities had attended some type of postsecondary school two years after high school, compared to 53% of youth in the general population.4

Affleck et al. reported employment rates for 892 graduates with learning disabilities and 768 graduates with no disabilities. At 6, 18, and 30 months post-graduation, employment rates for graduates with learning disabilities were 65%, 71%, and 68%, respectively, and for their peers with no disabilities, they were 73%, 79%, and 67%. Even though the graduates with learning disabilities tended to be employed at the same rate as their peers without disabilities, the authors noted that “the salary rates . . . remained so low as to preclude a truly independent living situation.” 5

Greenbaum et al. interviewed 49 adults with learning disabilities who had attended a large public university between 1980 and 1992 about their current employment. Eighty percent of them indicated that their learning problems adversely affected work and other facets of their lives. The most common problems centered on processing, language, and math difficulties.6

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1.) DeStefano, L., & Wagner, M., Outcome Assessment in Special Education: Lessons Learned(Champaign, IL: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, SRI International, 1991).
2.) Patton, J., & Polloway, E., “Learning disabilities: The challenge of adulthood,” Journal of Learning Disabilities, 1992, vol. 25.
3.) Sitlington, P. L., & Frank, A. R., “Are adolescents with learning disabilities successfully crossing the bridge into adult life?” Learning Disability Quarterly, 1990, vol. 13(1).
4.) Blackorby, J., & Wagner, M., “Longitudinal postschool outcomes of youth with disabilities: Findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study,” Exceptional Children, 1996, vol. 62, 399-413.
5.) Affleck, J. Q., Edgar, E., Levine, P., & Kortering, L., “Postschool status of students classified as mildly mentally retarded, learning disabled, nonhandicapped: Does it get better with time?” Education and Training in Mental Retardation, 1990, vol. 25, 315-324.
6.) Greenbaum, B., Graham, S, & Scales, W., “Adults with learning disabilities: Occupational and social status after college,” Journal of Learning Disabilities, 1996.