English Language Learners & {Dis}Abilities

This section of the Inclusive Virginia website provides information, instructional strategies, partnerships, and resources for adult education practitioners on supporting adult learners with differing abilities.

English language learners (ELLs) represent over half of the adult education learner population in the state of Virginia. It has been estimated that around 80% of adult learners have some type of learning {dis}ability (LD). While the exact number of adult ELLs with learning {dis}abilities is unknown, we can assume based on the data we have on adult learners as a whole, that there is a portion of ELLs in our adult education programs with learning {dis}abilities. The fact that ELLs are specifically learning a new language can make it very difficult to determine if slowed language development is due to the difficulties that come with learning a new language or from a learning {dis}ability.

Reasons why it can be difficult to determine if ELLs have a learning {dis}ability:

  • LD may show in a new, additional language when it was not apparent in the learner’s native/home language.
  • LD is not acknowledged in some cultures and learners may not be familiar with strategies for self-disclosing or describing their LD.
  • Characteristics of LD may be attributed to interrupted or limited formal schooling instead of LD.
  • Characteristics of LD may be attributed to lack of time to study and use English outside of the classroom.
  • Adult English language instructors may have limited knowledge and/or exposure to LD or training on LD instruction.
  • Adult English language programs may lack the resources needed to test and serve ELLs with LD.

It is very important that adult English language instructors do not try to diagnose learners with learning {dis}abilities. Instructors should first consider other factors that may contribute to slowed language development such as first language interference, lack of time to devote to studying and learning, differing learning styles, different cultural norms for learning, culture shock, etc. However, if issues persist, it is important that adult education programs provide learners with resources to identify if a learning {dis}ability is present. Above all, programs should ensure that only trained professionals certified and equipped to diagnose and support learning {dis}abilities are doing so. The role of the adult English language instructor is to observe learner behavior, discuss past learning experiences with the learner, try to account for other reasons for slowed language development, and if necessary, report a possible learning {dis}ability to program leadership.

Individuals studying English

Additional Information

State Healthcare Contact

If ELLs have questions related to receiving healthcare in regard to any {dis}ability, they can reach out to Dahlia Tejada Halter at Department of Medical Assistance Services. Dahlia wears many hats and serves as the Outreach and Member Engagement Specialist, works with the Community Outreach and Member Engagement Team (COMET), and works in the Policy, Regulation, & Member Engagement Division.

Contact Information:

  • Email: Dalia.TejadaHalter@dmas.virginia.gov
  • Phone Number: 804.225.2552; Office 1305
  • Website: www.coverva.org/en

Instructional Strategies

  • Develop and use needs assessments to identify learner strengths, areas that need development, past learning experiences, etc.
  • Use Universal Design for Learning strategies to ensure that learners have choice in the classroom and that instruction and learning is differentiated for learners with differing abilities.
  • Observe learner behavior with different language skills (modalities) and activities. Keep track of observations.
  • Develop materials that are appropriate for learners with {dis}abilities.
  • Use person-first language and avoid deficit-thinking and language when discussing learner {dis}abilities with learners or program staff.


In order to accommodate English language learners with {dis}abilities, adult education programs should 

  • Develop policies and procedures for testing and serving the needs of ELLs with learning {dis}abilities. 
  • Provide instructors with professional development and training related to learning {dis}abilities. 
  • Either employ an LD specialist or partner with an organization that can provide LD services (need to consider size of ELL population and ensure that resources match demands).

English Language Learners & Disabilities Resources


It is important to note that much of the research regarding ELLs with disabilities comes from the K-12 context. While some of these resources do focus specifically on adult ELLs, most of them will present information from a K-12 context which means adult educators have to modify and adapt the instructional strategies, practices, and recommendations to fit the adult education context.