What is Learning Disability?

What is it?


The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines learning disability as ‘a state of arrested or incomplete development of the mind’. If someone has a learning disability (sometimes known as intellectual disability) it means there will be limitations in their intellectual functioning, their ability to learn new skills, and difficulties with everyday activities.

When does it develop?


A learning disability usually develops in the womb, or at birth, or soon after. Causes include genetic conditions, developmental issues in the womb, premature birth prior to full brain development, birth trauma and the effect of early childhood illness or injury.

When is it identified?


A learning disability can be identified at various stages during childhood, from birth onwards, depending on the severity of the condition. It is often apparent when the child doesn’t reach the usually expected milestones and concerns are expressed by parents or professionals.

Its effect


People with a learning disability often take longer to learn to read, calculate, develop new skills and achieve tasks. They may need additional support and input for learning and leading an independent life. Each person is unique and support needs to be tailored to the individual. Generally, it’s a condition that is life-long; however, with support and encouragement, skills can be learnt and advances made, so that the person may live a more independent, fulfilling life. Some individuals with a learning disability remain living at home, cared for indefinitely by their parents, while others may move into supported or independent accommodation. 

Conditions linked with learning disabilities


Some conditions carry with them a greater likelihood of learning disability. The most well-known is Down's syndrome, in which most have some learning disability. Fragile X, foetal alcohol syndrome and cerebral palsy are other recognised conditions. In autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) - including Asperger syndrome - up to half have some level of learning disability. However, it’s important to note that learning disabilities range widely in severity, and not all people with these conditions will have a learning disability at all.

Learning Disability Services


In each area there are statutory Learning Disability Services. Most children are identified and assessed pre-school or in their school years, and therefore for them the services are accessed through health, social services and education. Following this, they usually remain linked into the services. However, if not picked up during education, it can be far harder to trigger an assessment later, often resulting in the need to access assessment through the voluntary sector or privately.

Learning difficulty

This is a broader term often used in education and includes specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Here the issue is specific to the way someone needs to learn or process ideas, and is not related to an impaired IQ. Support for children should be provided through the department in their school responsible for special educational needs, with further provision through the local education authority if needed.

Learning disability and the Church


Given the opportunity, people with learning disabilities can play an active part in church life. See some of the links below - Prospects is a Christian organisation that specialises in supporting people with learning disabilities, including facilitating local church-based groups and resourcing churches to be able to offer services accessible to people with learning disabilities. This enables them to play a part in the life of their church and experience a spiritual life in its fullness. Faith and Light and Hand in Hand are other Christian organisations who seek to include people with learning disabilities in the life of the Church and faith. L'Arche run supportive and Integrated communities in many countries.


3. NHS: www.nhs.uk/livewell/childrenwithalearningdisability
4. Mencap: www.mencap.org.uk
5. Prospects: www.prospects.org.uk
6. Faith and Light: www.faithandlight.org
7. L'Arche: www.larche.org.uk
8. Hand in Hand: www.handinhandab.co.uk

Jonathan Clark, 16/12/2014
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