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What is a Learning Disability?

Introduction – Learning disability or learning difficulty?

A learning disability is defined by the Department of Health and Social Care (2001) as: 

‘a significantly 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.’

A learning disability is different to a learning difficulty as a learning difficulty does not affect general intelligence or IQ. Learning difficulties includes conditions such as Dyslexia (reading), Dyspraxia (affecting physical co-ordination) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  A person with a learning disability may also have one or more learning difficulties.

Read more about definitions and causes of learning disability from the government here: Learning disability – applying All Our Health – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

Watch a video from MENCAP about the differences between a learning disability and learning difficulty here: https://youtu.be/QMj6Nogrylo

Causes of Learning disabilities

A learning disability is caused by something that affects the development of the brain. This could be before or during birth or early in childhood.

Possible causes:

  • An inherited or genetic condition
  • A very premature birth
  • Complications during birth resulting in a lack of oxygen to a baby’s brain
  • Illness, injury or trauma to the brain in early childhood

Sometimes the cause of a learning disability remains unknown.

Learning Disability Facts and figures

There are approximately 1.3 million people with a learning disability in England and 950,000 are over the age of 18 (according to the most up to date data from MENCAP).

In England, almost 68,000 children have a statement of special educational needs (SEN) or an education, health and care (EHC) plan and are identified as having a primary SEN associated with a learning disability. 26% of these children are educated in mainstream schools.’ Department of Health and Social Care.

Compared to people without a learning disability, people with learning disabilities tend to experience:

  • Poorer physical and mental health
  • Significant health inequalities

People with a learning disability are also:

  • Less likely to be working – in England
  • More likely to live in poverty
  • More likely to experience chronic loneliness
  • More likely to be bullied and discriminated against

Source: Gov.uk – Learning disability – applying all our health

Getting a diagnosis

A learning disability can be diagnosed at any time, before or just after birth, in early childhood or many years later. This can be a difficult and emotional experience.

A diagnosis during pregnancy:

Some learning disabilities may develop before birth. Tests can be carried out during pregnancy to establish the likelihood of the child developing a learning disability. Other genetic tests can be carried out if there are concerns that the child may have an inherited condition.

A diagnosis after a child is born:

A GP or Paediatrician often makes the diagnosis of learning disability, but often parents or teachers may be aware that a child is having difficulties in certain areas.

Whenever a diagnosis is received, it does not give an accurate assessment of what a child can and cannot do and how they will develop.

Read one lady’s journey after her son was diagnosed: My son’s diagnosis changed the course of our life | Mencap

What support is there for children with Learning Disabilities?

If a child has a diagnosed learning disability it is likely that they are supported by medical professionals. This may include a paediatrician, health visitor, speech and language therapist, GP or specialist consultant. Parents can also access support from nursery or school, once the child is old enough to attend.

There are also organisations in Leeds that support children with learning disabilities and their families. The Leeds Local Offer Directory (leedslocaloffer.org.uk) provides information for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities and their parents.it shows families what they can expect from a range of local agencies including, education, health and social care.

There are many charities in Leeds that offer support to children and their families with learning difficulties such as:

Read MENCAP’s guide to support for parents and carers, including details of short breaks and financial support: Parents & Carers Support – Learning Disability | Mencap

Additional support from Leeds Mencap

Speak to other parents with children with SEN and disabilities on our closed Facebook group.

Follow us on Facebook to hear about our upcoming events.

Check out the rest of our Family Support offer. We have:

  • Weekly Chats and Tots coffee morning
  • Family Support workers who can offer advice, signposting and support
  • Lots of tips and resources on our website

Additional support and resources:

This information is not affiliated with Leeds MENCAP.

Read more about learning disabilities and learning difficulties here:

Learning difficulties | Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities

Learning difficulties | Mencap

Access Learning Disability Advice and Support | Mencap

Info & Support | CASE Training Learning Disability Services Hull (casetraininghull.co.uk)

Learning disability support – Mind

What is the difference between Learning Disabilities and Learning Difficulties? | Alex Lowery speaks about autism

Access support from MENCAP through their Learning disability Helpline: Learning Disability Helpline | Mencap

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