About learning disability

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.

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.

Empowering People with Learning Disabilities

There is no reason why people with learning disabilities shouldn’t have access to all the same things that everyone else does in our society, such as; paid work, a home of their own, choice over how they spend their time and who with and a say in who supports them and how. The new personalisation agenda being implemented by the Government will hopefully make this a reality as people with learning disabilities and their families take more control over the support they receive.

Some Facts about learning disability


  • People with a learning disability are 58 times more likely to die aged under 50 than other people. And four times as many people with a learning disability die of preventable causes as people in the general population.
  • Physical inactivity is a major contributing factor in the deteriorating physical health of people with learning disabilities and other disabilities – which leads to obesity, poor cardio-respiratory fitness, poor muscular strength, poor coordination, balance and flexibility.
  • 75% of GPs have received no training to help them treat people with a learning disability.


  • At least half of all adults with a learning disability live in the family home – meaning that many don’t get the same chances as other people to gain independence, learn key skills and make choices about their own lives.
  • Less than a third of people with a learning disability have some choice of who they live with, and less than half have some choice over where they live.
  • The majority of people in supported accommodation had no choice over either who they lived with or where they lived Nationally around 1.8million household (around 4 million people are waiting for social housing, and people with learning disability are seen as low priority in social housing


  • Over 4 in 5 (83%) of people with learning disabilities of working age were unemployed
  • Unemployment among people with learning disabilities are extremely high – it is estimated that up to 90% of people with learning disabilities known to social service are out of work. 10% who do work are poorly paid, excluded from opportunities for promotion, or in jobs that match their skills or support needs
  • Learning disabilities group, compare to other disabled group still has the highest unemployment.

The above facts are from multiple sources