What is a learning disability?
A learning disability is a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities – for example household tasks, socialising or managing money – which affects someone for their whole life.
People with a learning disability tend to take longer to learn and may need support to develop new skills, understand complex information and interact with other people.
The level of support someone needs depends on individual factors, including the severity of their learning disability. For example, someone with a mild learning disability may only need support with things like getting a job. However, someone with a severe or profound learning disability may need full-time care and support with every aspect of their life – they may also have physical disabilities.
It’s important to remember that with the right support, most people with a learning disability in the UK can lead independent lives.
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.
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.