Guide for Assessing Persons with Disabilities - How to determine and implement assessment accommodations - Learning disabilities

What do you need to know about the disability?

The Learning Disability Association of Canada (LDAC) defines learning disabilities as followed:

"Learning disabilities refer to a number of disorders which may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding or use of verbal or nonverbal information. These disorders affect learning in individuals who otherwise demonstrate at least average abilities essential for thinking and/or reasoning. As such, learning disabilities are distinct from global intellectual deficiency.

Learning disabilities result from impairments in one or more processes related to perceiving, thinking, remembering or learning. These include, bur are not limited to: language processing; phonological processing; visual spatial processing; processing speed; memory and attention; and executive functions (e.g., planning and decision-making)."8

Learning disabilities range in severity and may interfere with the acquisition and use of one or more of the abilities that are listed below.

  • Oral language: Affect listening, speaking, understanding speech and memory of things presented orally. These difficulties can include problems in differentiating sounds, discriminating sounds from background noise and sequencing sounds(other terms used are auditory processing difficulty or oral comprehension problem).
  • Reading: Affect decoding, phonetic knowledge, word recognition, comprehension, and memory of things perceived visually. These difficulties can include visual-perceptual problems such as shape discrimination (e.g., seeing the difference between similarly-shaped letters), sequencing letters or words (e.g., reversing letters), and discriminating an image from its background (other terms used are dyslexia or visual-perception problem).
  • Written language: Include problems organizing ideas or material to be written and poor spelling (other term used is dysorthography), syntax and grammar.
  • Mathematics: Affect computation and problem-solving. These difficulties can include reversal of digits, poor memory for quantitative symbols, and errors in writing numbers or aligning columns (other term used is dyscalculia).

The LDAC definition of learning disabilities also specifies that:

"Learning disabilities may also involve difficulties with organizational skills, social perception, social interaction and perspective taking.

Learning disabilities are due to genetic and/or neurobiological factors or injury that alters brain functioning in a manner which affects one or more processes related to learning. These disorders are not due primarily to hearing and/or vision problems, socio-economic factors, cultural or linguistic differences, lack of motivation or ineffective teaching, although these factors may further complicate the challenges faced by individuals with learning disabilities. Learning disabilities may co-exist with various conditions including attentional, behavioural and emotional disorders, sensory impairments or other medical conditions."

What information or professional documentation is needed?

Persons with learning disabilities are the first source of information about their functional limitations and the accommodations that are useful to them. However, due to the wide variation in types and severity of learning disabilities, persons identifying themselves as having a learning disability (LD) requiring assessment accommodations will normally be required to provide professional documentation to clarify the nature and the extent of the resulting functional limitations.

Applicants may present a variety of documents describing their needs in terms of assessment accommodations, such as school reports of accommodations received, or notes from their family physician. However, in order to provide appropriate assessment accommodations, a report of an assessment that was conducted by a qualified professional in the field, accredited by the appropriate regulated professional association, is required to complement the information already provided by the applicant. Because the disability is not evident, is complex and subject to interpretation, it is of the upmost importance to have as precise a picture as possible of the effect of the disability on a particular person's mode of functioning.

The professional documentation is expected to reflect the person's current mode of functioning. Generally, thorough assessments that have been conducted after the age of 18 are considered to be adequate. However, if a long period has elapsed since the report was produced, the person may be asked to return to a specialist to see if a new assessment should be conducted. Alternately, if the report indicates that the condition is not stable, an update may be required. For a more general discussion on professional documentation requirements and standards, refer to the section on Standards for professional documentation.

Typically, the professional documentation should include:

  • a clear description of the nature and extent of the current functional limitations;
  • an interpretative summary of standardized test results used during the assessment done by the professional;
  • any means by which the applicant compensates for his or her functional limitations; and
  • a description of accommodations that the person is using, has used or could benefit from.

Having this information in the professional report or document allows for a description of the person's current strengths and limits with implications for assessment accommodations. Specific accommodations may be suggested in the assessment report. While they may not be directly transferable to the specific assessment situation, depending on the context for which they were intended (for example, school versus employment settings), they may still provide useful information. When there is a difference between the professional's suggestions and the planned accommodations, it may be necessary to consult with the professional or another external expert familiar with both the applicant and the issues involved. This may happen with more complex cases of accommodating persons with learning disabilities, including dyslexia. The Personnel Psychology Centre has encountered this situation from time to time in determining accommodations for PSC standardized tests, specifically in one case it dealt with, the Powers case. The applicant must agree in writing to this further consultation (see step 3 of the section Determining and implementing assessment accommodations).

What are the key elements to consider?

When determining assessment accommodations for persons with learning disabilities, the following three elements should be considered:

1. The nature and extent of the person's functional limitations must be clearly understood. The following questions may help to gather useful information:

  • What are the specific abilities or functions that are affected by the applicant's disability: is it listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, mathematics, motor coordination, social skills, working memory, processing speed, visual construction?
  • What is the extent of the limitations that are imposed by the disability: is it mild, moderate or severe?
  • Does the learning disability co-exist with another disability? For example, an attention deficit disorder leads to other functional limitations. If this is the case, this fact will normally be indicated in the report from the qualified professional, and you may refer to the section on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
  • What accommodations does the applicant use on the job to accomplish work tasks that are similar to the tasks to be accomplished during the assessment situation?

It is important to reiterate that persons with disabilities are the first source of information on the way their limitations affect them and on how to accommodate their specific needs. Consequently, although for the disability discussed here some documentation will have to be provided by a professional, information on functional limitations will also be gathered through exchanges with the person. To help you to gather these details in a discussion, you may wish to refer to the questionnaire available in appendix 2.

The documentation provided by a professional will ensure a precise understanding of the multifaceted functional limitations associated with the disability. For more information on professional documentation requirements please refer to Standards for professional documentation.

2. A thorough knowledge of the assessment tool to be used is required. Depending on the assessment tool's characteristics, accommodations which are necessary for one tool may be unnecessary for another. Here are some considerations to help you identify the characteristics of your assessment tool.

For an interview:

  • Are written documents provided before or during the interview? If so, how much reading is involved?
  • Is there time to prepare responses prior to the interview?
  • What is the expected length of responses to be given orally?
  • Is there a written component? If so, how much writing is involved?
  • What is the time allotted?

For a written test:

  • Is it an essay-style exam, short answers or a multiple choice test?
  • Is it a case study, an in-basket exercise?
  • Is it an open book test?
  • How many questions are there?
  • How much reading and writing are involved?
  • What is the time allotted?
  • Will the instructions be provided orally or in writing?

For an interactive situation:

  • Is it a group setting? If so, how many participants are there?
  • Is written documentation provided before or during the situation? If so, how much reading is involved?
  • What is the expected length of exercise to happen orally?
  • Is there a written component? If so, how much writing is involved?
  • What is the time allotted?

3. Knowledge of the qualification being assessed is essential. This information will help you ensure that accommodations do not modify the nature or level of the qualification being assessed. Considerations include:

  • What qualification(s) is (are) assessed by the instrument? It is knowledge, abilities/skills, aptitude or personal suitability? How is it defined?
  • Is there a speed requirement?
  • Does the level of the qualification assessed reflect the job requirement?

Determining appropriate assessment accommodations necessarily requires research and analysis of all three elements above; of the impact they have one another, and the application of the Principles for assessment accommodations. This analysis is the foundation of the rationale for the accommodations. This rational has to explain how the accommodations are enabling the demonstration of the person's qualifications, preventing his or her functional limitations from being a disadvantage. It also has to explain how the person is not being given an advantage compared to others in the appointment process, therefore, that merit is preserved.

Examples of assessment accommodations and considerations

The following are examples and considerations that may be helpful in determining assessment accommodations. It also includes a number of specific examples of assessment accommodations relative to possible functional limitations.

While reviewing these examples, keep in mind that accommodations are determined on a case by case basis and their appropriateness will depend on the nature and extent of the individual's functional limitations, the assessment tool to be used and the qualification to be assessed. Also, accommodations must resemble, if possible, the usual way in which the person would perform the task requested as if he or she was on the job, and must not alter the nature or level of the qualification being assessed. For more details, please refer to Determining and implementing assessment accommodations.

Individual session: Individual assessment sessions are required in all cases where test administration differs from standard procedures.

Additional time: Additional time will frequently be required to accommodate learning disabilities. The amount of time needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis, as individuals differ widely in the nature and extent of their limitations. When determining the amount of additional time to give, consider separately the time requirements that are due to difficulties in receiving test information (reading or listening) and producing responses (writing or speaking).

Breaks: The provision of additional time often means that extra breaks will be required. Breaks should not be included in the time allotted for test administration but should be in addition to it, thus extending the total time required for the assessment session. A stopwatch should be used to keep track of the exact time spent on assessment and the time spent on breaks

Choice of formats: Formats of tests and preparatory materials may be altered, depending on the nature of the functional limitations. For example, if an applicant has a reading impairment, an oral format or a large-print format could be appropriate, depending on the circumstances.

Use of adaptive technologies: Applicants are usually the best source of information on how to accommodate their needs through adaptive technology or by other means. In general, they should be provided with the devices or software that they use on a regular basis. For a listing and brief description of various adaptive technologies that are commonly used, see the glossary of adaptive technology and services in appendix 4.

For listening or oral comprehension difficulties:

Oral instructions or interview questions can be modified.

  • Slow down the presentation of instructions or interview questions, ensuring that the total administration time is adjusted accordingly.
  • Simplify instructions or questions by presenting them in small chunks of information. Ensure that they are clearly understood before moving on to other assessment steps.
  • To verify comprehension, have the applicant repeat the instructions or interview questions in his or her own words and correct any misinterpretations about the instructions or each question's content before he or she responds.
  • Present instructions or interview questions orally and in written form simultaneously and allow extra time for the applicant to reread them.

For reading difficulties:

Instructions may be given orally.

  • Use a moderate pace and clear articulation.
  • A reader, computer diskette with voice synthesizer, or taped version of test material may be used with or without the written examination in front of the applicant.
  • Verify, with a brief question, that the instructions have been understood.

If reading difficulties are linked to visual perception difficulties:

  • Use of a coloured plastic overlay placed over reading material or non-white paper (e.g., light blue) may be appropriate.
  • Provision of a ruler to help the applicant to focus on one line at a time.

For written language difficulties:

  • Assistance with Spell Check and Grammar Check software: It is important to note that this assessment accommodation may be inappropriate depending on the qualification being assessed.

For speaking difficulties:

  • The applicant may use a written communicator (see the glossary of adaptive technology and services in appendix 4) or a lap-top computer.
  • Assessors should be careful not to penalize applicants for speech difficulties when clear speech is not part of the qualification being assessed. Rather, they should focus on the content of the applicant's message and eliminate from consideration such factors affected by the disabilities as speed of delivery, pronunciation, clarity, volume, etc.

8 Learning Disabilities Association of Canada. Adopted January 30, 2002. Website:
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