Journal of Learning Disabilities
The online version of this article can be found at:
2012 45: 31 originally published online 7 November 2011J Learn Disabil
Paul J. Gerber
Research and Practice in Adult Education
The Impact of Learning Disabilities on Adulthood: A Review of the Evidenced-Based Literature for
Hammill Institute on Disabilities
can be found at:
Journal of Learning Disabilities
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Journal of Learning Disabilities
45(1) 31 –46
© Hammill Institute on Disabilities 2012
Reprints and permission:
Learning disabilities (LD) form a heterogeneous group of
cognitive disabilities (with a variety of subtypes). Since
there is not an adult-specific definition for LD, there are
consequently a myriad of adult outcomes. Taymans, in this
issue, addresses the legal and definitional issues related to
specific LD and how they currently inform policy, prac-
tice, and research. For the purposes of this article, the
definition developed by the National Joint Committee
on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD, 1991) is most fitting.
When reviewing the LD literature, it is common to read
about a wide range of functioning from highly successful
to moderately successful, to those who are either margin-
ally adjusted and/or totally dependent on others (Gerber &
Moreover, by nature adults with LD can be placed on a
continuum of severity, ranging from borderline or low aver-
age intelligence to superior intelligence (Reiff & Gerber,
1991; Shaywitz, Morris, & Shaywitz, 2008). Complementary
to the issue of severity is a range of adaptive behaviors that
can have implications for daily functioning and social skills
that must be utilized consistently and effectively in numer-
ous adult contexts (Gerber & Reiff, 1991; Roffman, 2000).
Issues of comorbidity are also part of the adult with LD
experience. It is not uncommon for adults with LD to
also have ADD/ADHD, anxiety, depression, personality
disorder, and age-related conditions (Gerber et al., 1990;
San Miguel, Forness, & Kavale, 1996). A small subset of
the LD population is gifted (Dole, 2000). Therefore, the
mantra for thinking about adults with LD is “one size does
not fit all” because there are a wide array of interindividual
differences. Therefore, it is not surprising to find very
diverse outcomes for adults with LD. In essence, the impact
of LD on adulthood is multifaceted with a whole host of
The stage of adulthood also poses an interesting set of
dynamics. At the onset of adulthood, there can be as many
as 70 or more years, the longest stage of human develop-
ment. However, the adult stage of development can best be
thought of in phases, from early to middle to late adulthood
(Erickson, 1963; Gould, 1978; Havighurst, 1972; Levinson,
1978, 1986). Numerous adult development theorists have
conceptualized a sequence of development that provides a
useful framework, but none has proffered one specific to
6858GerberJournal of Learning Disabilities
1Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA, USA
Paul J. Gerber, Virginia Commonwealth University, School of Education,
Department of Special Education and Disability Studies, Richmond,
The Impact of Learning Disabilities on
Adulthood: A Review of the Evidenced-
Based Literature for Research and
Practice in Adult Education
Paul J. Gerber, PhD1
It is now well established that learning disabilities (LD) persist into the adult years, yet despite a developing literature base
in this area, there is a paucity of evidence-based research to guide research and practice. Consistent with the demands of
the adult stage of development, autonomy and self-determination are crucial to quality-of-life issues to adults in general,
and specifically to adults with LD. There are many areas of functioning in which adults need to adapt successfully, such as
employment, family, social and emotional, daily living routines, community, and recreation and leisure. In essence, there are a
myriad of challenges and outcomes as adults navigate the trials and tribulations of LD as it manifests itself into adulthood. This
review of the extant evidence-based literature seeks to discover relevant knowledge that can be shared with practitioners
who serve adults with LD in a variety of professional and volunteer roles, particularly in adult education settings.
adults with LD, adults with dyslexia, adults with LD outcomes, adults with LD and employment, adults with LD and life
Journal of Learning Disabilities 45(1)
adults with LD. However, when judging the developmental
challenges of any or all of the phases of adulthood for those
who are LD, it is helpful to refer to adult normative devel-
opment frameworks for guidance (Bassett, Polloway, &
Patton, 1994; Gerber, 1993).
Developmental challenges and milestones in a series
of domains provide a matrix for adult functioning. Those
domains vary depending on adult theorists, but they typi-
cally include employment, family, personal–social, and so
on. Overall, the path that emerges from the adult develop-
ment literature is typically one of competitive employment,
independent living, family involvement, community par-
ticipation, leisure and recreation pursuits, and possible con-
tinuing education. These areas of functioning are germane
to adults with LD as well.
Unlike the school-age years, the adult with LD experi-
ence is not centered on education. In fact, LD may be
viewed by adults with LD as purely an educational con-
struct, relegated only to the school-age years. Moreover,
because of the invisibility of LD, disclosure becomes a
choice in adult settings mediated by the dynamics of risk
and reward. The ultimate question for adults with LD is “to
be LD or not to be LD” (Gerber, Price, Mulligan, &
Williams, 2005). There are legal protections emanating
from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and its reau-
thorization the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments
Act of 2008 that are important to adults with LD. These
laws are relevant to only education and employment, how-
ever. The rewards are the use of the laws to prevent dis-
crimination, to gain equal access, and to provide “a level
playing field” when competing with nondisabled peers. The
risks are misunderstanding, stigma, negative self-esteem
issues, and social isolation reminiscent of the school-age
years (Gerber & Price, 2006).
Generalizing about the impact of LD on adulthood can
be very complicated. It must be nuanced to capture its com-
plexity. Without question, there are trials and tribulations in
the many phases of adulthood, from day to day and from
year to year (Gerber, 1992a, 1994). At the same time, there
are many good examples of successful adjustment where
adults with LD have achieved a good quality of life—finding
their niche by focusing on their strengths and compensating
for weaknesses within their individual profile (Gerber,
Ginsberg, & Reiff, 1992; Reiff, Gerber, & Ginsberg, 1997;
Spekman, Goldberg, & Herman, 1992). Currently in the
field of LD, there is a developing literature base on adults
with LD, but only a limited set of research. The purpose of
this review is to present evidence-based findings about the
adult with LD experience that can inform the practice for
professionals and volunteers who work with adults with LD,
particularly in adult education settings.
Procedures for Searching
the Research Literature
The literature search on the impact of LD on adulthood
focused on research in the following databases: ERIC
Clearinghouse, PsycINFO, InfoTrac One, Academic One
File, and Dissertation Abstracts International. In addition,
hand searching was done in a number of journals from the
past 17 years (beginning with the passage of ADA in 1990),
including Journal of Learning Disabilities, Learning
Disability Quarterly, LD Research and Practice, and
Remedial and Special Education. One exception should be
noted. The Rogan and Hartman (1986) study cited in this
review was included because it is considered one of the
seminal outcome studies of adults with LD. The search
included only articles published in refereed journals.
Websites pertaining to the topic were searched as well.
They included the websites for the Division for Career
Development and Transition, the International Dyslexia
Association, the Job Accommodation Network, the
Learning Disabilities Association of America, the National
Center for Learning Disabilities, the National Center for
Special Education Research, the National Center for the
Study of Adult Learning and Literacy, the National
Collaborative on Workforce and Disability, the National
Institute for Literacy, the NJCLD, the National Transition
Longitudinal Study 2 (NLTS2), and the U.S. Department of
Education, LDOnline.org, and SchwabLearning.org.
The search was done with disability-specific focus. Only
the terms learning disabilities and dyslexia were used.
Terms such as mildly disabled and high incidence disabili-
ties were not included. Also excluded from the search were
articles pertaining to LD in British journals because LD is
an umbrella term for a wide array of disabilities including
developmental disabilities. ADD and ADHD were not
searched as primary disabilities. They were included for the
purposes of reporting a small select set of data reported by
All work cited in this review was considered via the stan-
dards of the Council for Learning Disabilities Research
Committee (Rosenberg, 1993). The research review on
low-literate adults with LD cited in the next section was
done via the standards set by the National Reading Panel
The search for the literature in the area of impact of LD on
adulthood was driven by a primary question to guide the
review of the evidence-based research: “What do we know
about the adult with LD experience that informs practice for
transition preparation and adult education that can foster pos-
itive outcomes in the adult years?” Excluded from the search
was a body of substantive research on persons with LD who
continued on to higher education after their school-age years.
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