What Is A Learning Disability?

A learning disability is a life-long, reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities such as reading, cooking or communicating. People with a learning disability tend to take longer to learn and may need support to develop new skills, understand complicated information and interact with other people. 

​The Department of Health and Social Care defines a learning disability 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.

There are different types of learning disability, which can be mild, moderate or severe. The level of support someone needs depends on the individual. For example, someone with a severe learning disability may need full-time care and support with every aspect of their life – they may also have physical disabilities.  

Despite what many people think, a learning disability is not a mental health problem.

A learning disability is a lifelong condition that cannot be cured. However, with the right support, people with a learning disability can lead happy, fulfilling lives.

What does it mean to have a learning disability?

Having a learning disability means that:

  • You may find it difficult to perform everyday tasks, like getting dressed, shopping, making a meal, getting around, having a job, understanding simple instructions or working out problems
  • You may need more time to perform tasks
  • You may have speech difficulties, not understand fully what other people are saying, or not be able to speak at all
  • You may get anxious about everyday problems like the bus being late, a letter arriving that you can’t read, or someone asking you to do something you have never done before.

Learning disabilities range from mild to severe. In addition, physical difficulties and health problems can often co-exist, making a very complex picture when considering needs. It is not unusual for one person to have several disorders co-existing. Some examples include:

Effects of learning disability

Different forms and combinations of learning and physical disability require different levels of support, from a little extra help to support independent living to 24-hour residential care.

Loneliness, isolation, unemployment and depression are often significant problems for adults with disabilities and there is little provision for support.

Only 5% of people with learning disability have a job, even though 65% want to work. It is difficult to have a purpose in life if you have no job, don’t feel useful, or have little independence.

Learning disabilities have no respect for class or income, but families on low incomes living in disadvantaged areas of the town have less resources in terms of energy, opportunity or emotional resilience to help them to access support.

The difference between a learning disability and a learning difficulty

A learning disability is not the same as a learning difficulty, which a reduced ability for a specific form of learning. Learning difficulties encompass a broader range of conditions than learning disabilities, including dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

A person with a learning disability may also have one or more learning difficulties.

Reading Mencap and learning disability

Reading Mencap excels in providing information, support, activity and leisure services for people with learning disabilities and their families. To find out more about the services we provide, please see Who We Are.