The impact of learning disabilities on correctional treatment
Offenders who have had serious difficulties in acquiring academic skills may not benefit adequately from
treatment programs that assume they possess these skills. Therefore, when offender treatment programs
fall short of expected results, their lack of success may be related to a constellation of difficulties
referred to as learning disabilities.
It is important to note that the mastery of academic skills extends beyond mechanical proficiency. For
exam pie, the ability to read requires matching written symbols to sounds then to words and,finally,
extracting meaning from the text. Difficulty with any of these steps may be related to a learning
Further, while learning disabilities are primarily difficulties with academic skills, they also often
co-occur with social skill or impulse control problems, attention disorders, or extreme restlessness and
This article, therefore, examines how learning disabilities are defined and identified, their
prevalence within the institutional population and, perhaps most important, how offender treatment or
programming can accommodate the unique needs of offenders with learning disabilities. Defining learning
disabilities Learning disabilities can best be described as a group of problems resulting from disorders
in the receipt of information and its transmission to the brain. Individuals are born with learning
disabilities, even though such conditions may not become evident until formal schooling begins. A person
also does not outgrow a learning disability - it usually remains present throughout their life.
Learning disabilities are sometimes referred to as "invisible" disabilities because people with these
problems appear to function normally in most areas of life and often have average to above-average
intelligence. In fact, a significant discrepancy between intellectual ability and academic achievement
is one indication of a learning disability.
These disabilities affect various sensory modes involved in processing information. The process of
receiving and expressing information can be broken down into four stages:(2)
input (the receipt of information by the senses);
integration (the organization and comprehension of information);
memory (the storage and retrieval of information); and
output (the oral or written expression of information).
Learning disabilities may occur at any of these stages. For example, individuals who have difficulty
following instructions may have auditory input problems resulting from an inability to focus their
attention. On the other hand, those who have difficulty with oral expression may have memory or output
problems. Slow and laboured self-expression is often the result of difficulty in accessing words from
memory to transform thoughts into oral or written expression. The individual may also not have developed
a "self-talk" system that allows them to plan what to say before speaking.
Learning disabilities do not impact exclusively on academic learning situations. They also interfere
with non-intentional learning, which is learning that occurs out of simple awareness (such as learning
to speak). Problems related to academic skills are referred to as primary disabilities, while problems
related to selfregulatory behaviour (such as attention focusing or impulse control) are considered to be
secondary disabilities. The effects of learning disabilities
Learning disabilities tend to reveal themselves in adults in a variety of ways:
having excellent speaking ability, but an inability to express thoughts on paper;
having mechanical aptitude, but difficulty with reading, writing or spelling;
learning well when shown, but being unable to follow written or spoken instructions;
being unable to organize belongings, time, activities or responsibilities;
having a history of academic failure;
making frequent excuses to avoid reading (such as "I forgot my glasses"); and
avoiding asking questions because of a fear of appearing "dumb."
Further evidence of a learning disability may be the inability to maintain relationships or make
friends, a constant feeling of anxiety, tension or depression, poor self-image, an inability to
concentrate, or extreme restlessness.
However, many people experience one or more of these symptoms. It is only when several are present to a
significant degree that it may indicate a learning disability. A formal assessment by a psychologist or
psychiatrist with specialized training can determine the presence of such a disability. Learning
disabilities in the institutional population There is strong evidence that the incidence of learning
disabilities is significantly greater in the institutional population than in the community at large.
Just 5% to 10% of the general population have a learning disability, while the incidence of learning
disabilities in the prison population fluctuates between 7% and 77%.
Two Canadian studies have reported incidence rates of between 7% and 25% in federal
but U.S. studies have reported rates ranging from 8% to 77%.(4)
This discrepancy may be the result of different definitions of learning disabilities, varying cutoff
points for selected measures or the use of abbreviated versions of tests to identify disabilities.
Identifying offenders with learning disabilities Psychological testing for learning disabilities
generally involves a battery of tests to determine intellectual potential, academic achievement, and
strengths and weaknesses in both intellectual and psychosocial development.(5)
However, psychological testing is time consuming and costly. Even a conservative estimate of the
incidence of learning disabilities among offenders (such as 25%) suggests that psychological testing
would have to be restricted to the most severe cases. Therefore, alternative ways of identifying
offenders with learning disabilities are needed.
Offenders are routinely group-tested upon entry into the correctional system to determine grade
placement and academic achievement level. Ideally, the diagnosis of learning disabilities should occur
at this time and become part of the offender's correctional plan.
An alternative approach would involve the computerized testing of intellectual potential and academic
achievement. Brief tests to measure intellectual potential could then be given to offenders whose
initial scores indicated that they were at risk of having a learning disability.
Computerized testing would allow for individualized testing without the time and cost of
person-to-person testing. Computers could also immediately generate an offender profile of strengths,
weaknesses, intellectual potential and grade equivalents, as well as of the time taken to answer
questions, error pattern analysis and correlations among different test results. Para-professionals
could administer the second round of brief tests, which could be developed to address the needs of
specific institutions (such as facilities for young offenders).
However, testing offenders on admission to the system may produce unreliable results. Offenders may
still be experiencing disorientation, adjustment problems or the residual effects of drug use. It would
be advisable, therefore, to re-test the offenders at least three months later to ensure the accuracy of
assessments 50 that offenders receive an appropriate correctional plan. Treatment programming
accommodation The identification of adults with learning disabilities is a recent phenomenon. It had
long been believed that children would simply outgrow learning difficulties when they became adults.
However, it has now been acknowledged that although adults may learn to compensate for their
difficulties, learning disabilities never completely disappear.
Various types of intervention specifically address the needs of adults with learning disabilities, such
as support groups, self-help groups, and group and individual counselling. However, research as to
success of these approaches is only in its initial stages.(6)
Ultimately, any form of treatment or programming must address the fundamental issues related to
learning disabilities, to enable individuals with these problems to integrate new information into their
repertoire of behaviours.(7)
For example, treatment or programming accommodation for offenders with learning disabilities may
involve their using a tape recorder or computer. Electronic aids can greatly improve an offender's
ability to retain information, while computer word-processing programs (with spelling and grammar check
components) might help offenders who have difficulty with the fine motor control involved in
Alternatively, these offenders should receive extra time to complete tests or assignments or permission
to tape record their responses. Portable tape recorders might also help offenders who are impulsive or
easily distracted, as might their keeping a notebook and pencil handy for writing down thoughts as they
The inability to quickly organize thoughts could lead, in group sessions, to either constant
interruptions or the offender remaining silent. Therefore, group leaders should use a relatively
structured format, directive questions and constant monitoring to remain on topic and involve these
Offenders with learning disabilities could also be given practical suggestions on self-organization,
such as how to set up a personal schedule or diary. They could also be encouraged to create daily lists
of responsibilities (such as assignments and classes), 50 they develop self-management skills.
Finally, teachers and group leaders should develop the habit of having offenders with learning
disabilities repeat, in their own words, what they have understood in a particular session. This creates
an opportunity for feedback and correction, as well as reinforcing the presented material.
Learning disabilities interfere with individuals' ability to extract meaning from written or spoken
information. To be effective, treatment programs must, therefore, address the special learning needs of
offenders who have trouble processing information.
Ultimately, training and treatment programs focus on lowering recidivism rates. Programming that
accommodates offenders with learning disabilities is more effective for more offenders, bringing
programming doser to its ultimate goal.
(1)1201 Bordeau Grove, Gloucester, Ontario K1C 2M6.
(2)L. Silver, The Misunderstood Child: A Guide for Parents of Learning Disabled Children (New
York: McGraw-Hill, 1984).
(3)B. Lysakowski, Incidence of Learning Disabilities in an Inmate Population in British
Columbia, Master's Thesis, University of British Columbia, 1980. See also J. Folsom, Psychopathy
and Learning Disability in a Male Prison Population, Ph.D. thesis, 1993.
(4)W.M. Dowling, "Learning Disabilities Among Incarcerated Males," Journal of Correctional
Education, 42, 4 1991): 180-185. See also I. Keilitz, B. A. Zaremba and P. K. Broder, "The Link
Between Learning Disabilities and Juvenile Delinquency: Some Issues and Answers," Learning Disability
Quarterly, 2 (1979): 2-11.
(5)The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Adults and the Woodcock Johnson Test of Cognitive Abilities are
the tests used most often with offender populations.
(6)5 A. Vogel and S. R. Forness, "Social Functioning in Adults with Learning Disabilities," School
Psychology Review, 21, 3 (1992): 375-386.
(7)C. S. Weinstein, "Cognitive Remediation Strategies: An Adjunct to the Psychotherapy of Adults with
Attention deficit Hyperactivity Disorder," The Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, 3,
44 (1994): 44-57. See also N. Hallowell and J. Ratey, Driven to Distraction (New York: Pantheon