What is a learning disability?

‘Learning disability’ is an umbrella term covering many different intellectual disabilities. It means that a person’s capacity to learn is affected and that they may not learn things as quickly as other people. Sometimes a learning disability is called a learning difficulty, intellectual impairment or intellectual disability.

A learning disability is not an illness. Some people with a learning disability also experience mental health problems such as depression, but they are not the same thing.

People usually have a learning disability from birth or sometimes from early childhood. Although it is a permanent condition, people with a learning disability can and do learn and develop with the right sorts of support from other people.

Including people with a learning disability

Categorising people with learning disabilities by measuring their IQ alone does not take into account how well they cope day to day or acknowledge their potential. People with learning disabilities often find it difficult to function independently in society and to communicate with other people. It is important to see someone with a learning disability as part of society and to consider what she or he needs from society so they are included. This may be particular kinds of support or positive social attitudes which enable them to reach their potential.

To summarise - a learning disability is:

A significant, lifelong condition that started before adulthood, that affected the person’s development and which means that they need help to:

  • Understand information
  • Learn skills
  • Cope independently

A learning disability (LD) differs from specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia or language disorders, in that it affects all aspects of development rather than just one specific aspect. A learning disability differs from cognitive problems associated with acquired brain injury in adulthood, in that it occurs during the developmental process.

Last Reviewed: 01/06/2011