Learning disabilities

Having a learning disability means that people find it harder to learn certain life skills. The problems experienced vary from person to person, but may include aspects such as learning new things, communication, managing money, reading, writing, or personal care.  Some people are born with a disability, whereas others may develop one as a result of an accident or illness in childhood.

Types of learning disabilities differ hugely. Someone with mild disabilities may be able to live independently with minimal support, whereas someone with severe and profound disabilities may require 24 hour care, and help with performing most daily living skills.

A learning disability is defined by the Department of Health as a “significant reduced ability to understand new or complex information, to learn new skills (impaired intelligence), with a reduced ability to cope independently (impaired social functioning), which started before adulthood”.

Sometimes, the term 'Global Developmental Delay' (GDD) is used to describe a learning disability. GDD describes a condition that occurs between birth and the age of 18 which prevents a child from reaching key milestones of development like learning to communicate, processing information, remembering things and organising their thoughts.

What causes a learning disability?

Learning disabilities are caused by something affecting the development of the brain. This may occur before birth (prenatally), during birth, or in early childhood.
Learning disabilities can be caused by any one of a variety of factors, or by a combination. Sometimes the specific cause is not known. Possible causes include the following:

  • An inherited condition, meaning that certain genes passed from the parents affected the brain development, for example Fragile X.
  • Chromosome abnormalities such as Down’s syndrome or Turner syndrome.
  • Complications during birth resulting in a lack of oxygen to the brain.
  • A very premature birth.
  • Mother’s illness during pregnancy.
  • The mother drinking during pregnancy, for example Foetal Alcohol Syndrome.
  • A debilitating illness or injury in early childhood affecting brain development, for example a road traffic accident or child abuse.
  • Contact with damaging material (like radiation).
  • Neglect, and/or a lack of mental stimulation early in life.
  • Some people with learning disabilities have additional physical disabilities and/or sensory impairments.

How many people have a learning disability?

It has been estimated that 1,043,449 people in England (2% of the population) have a learning disability.

The numbers known to learning disability services are much smaller: an estimated 236,235 people.

Figures taken from The Improving Health and Lives Learning Disabilities Observatory (IHAL), 2013.

How does a learning disability affect a person’s life?

People with learning disabilities do not learn certain skills as quickly as other people and may therefore need extra help in certain aspects of their lives. The specific skills in question will depend upon the type of disability. People with mild learning disabilities may live alone, travel independently, and work. 

They may not require any support from their local authority, or may just need support in managing their finances. Other people may require more regular support to ensure their safety and health on a daily basis. Those with more severe or complex needs may need extensive, hour-to-hour help in performing basic skills, such as eating, dressing and washing.

With the right support people can live full and meaningful lives. However, if this support is not provided they may face problems in gaining independence or a home of their own, in accessing leisure and recreation activities, and/or in developing friendships and relationships.

What is the difference between a learning disability and a learning difficulty?

In general, a learning disability constitutes a condition which affects learning and intelligence across all areas of life, whereas a learning difficulty constitutes a condition which creates an obstacle to a specific form of learning, but does not affect the overall IQ of an individual. For example, Down’s syndrome is classed as a learning disability, whereas dyslexia is classed as a learning difficulty, in that it only affects an individual’s relationship to the processing of information, usually manifested in problems with reading, writing, and spelling.

What is the difference between a learning disability and a mental health problem?

A learning disability is a permanent condition developing at the latest in early childhood, whereas mental illness (or a mental health problem) can develop at any time, and is not necessarily permanent. People can get better and resolve mental health problems with help and treatment.

Whilst mental health problems can be treated through therapy, social support, medication, or a combination of these, people with learning disabilities are not ‘treated’ but rather receive support which enables them to most effectively and happily lead their lives. Anyone can develop a mental health problem at any stage of their life, which means that they must be given the necessary support to deal with it, and ideally to prevent it from occurring at all.