What does the term ‘learning disability’ mean?


Many people find the term ‘learning disability’ confusing.

Many different terms are also used, including developmental disability or learning difficulty as well as out of date terms which are no longer seen as acceptable such as mental handicap.

Many people with a diagnosis of having an autistic spectrum disorder or cerebral palsy may also have a learning disability although this is not necessarily the case.

Many self-advocates prefer the term ‘learning difficulty’ whereas many family carers of people with more complex support needs feel that this term does not reflect the level of support some people need. An additional confusion is that the terms ‘learning difficulty’ or ‘specific learning difficulty’ are often used to describe difficulties such as dyslexia and dyspraxia. We at the Foundation focus on people who have a learning disability rather than a specific learning difficulty.

Other countries also use differing terms to describe these conditions, for example, in the USA and Canada they use the term ‘intellectual disability’ for what we in the UK would describe as a ‘learning disability’.

There is also confusion between learning disabilities and mental health problems: having a learning disability is not the same as having a mental health issue such as depression or psychosis. Anyone can be affected by mental health problems at any time in their life and in many cases these can be overcome with treatment. People with learning disabilities are at risk of developing mental health issues during their life and should receive the treatment they need.

Department of Health definition

‘Learning disability’ is the term that the Department of Health use within their policy and practice documents.

In Valuing People (2001) they describe a ‘learning disability’ as a:

  • significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information, to learn new skills
  • reduced ability to cope independently which starts before adulthood with lasting effects on development.

(Department of Health. Valuing People: A New Strategy for Learning Disability for the 21st Century. 2001).

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