Many people will have heard the terms learning difficulty and learning disability but it can be difficult to know what the difference between the two is. To the uninitiated, learning disability and difficulty may seem like interchangeable terms. However, they have different and specific meanings.
Fundamentally the difference between the two terms is the effect of the condition on intellectual ability.
Learning difficulties are experienced without any effect of intellectual ability.
Learning disabilities have an impact on intellectual ability.
Let’s take a closer look at what this means in reality for people who are affected by these conditions.
Learning difficulties is a broad term to describe conditions that will affect a person’s ability to learn in a traditional classroom setting.
Learning difficulties are usually diagnosed in childhood, although children and adults can be diagnosed with learning difficulties at any time in their lives. Learning difficulties are usually lifelong conditions.
Examples of learning difficulties include:
Dyslexia - this is a difficulty with reading and writing fluently.
Dyspraxia - this is a difficulty with movement and bodily coordination. This is also called Developmental Coordination Disorder.
Dyscalculia - this is a difficulty with understanding numbers and mathematics.
ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) - this is a difficulty with regulating behaviour and concentration.
There are many other learning difficulties that can be experienced. It is possible for someone to have multiple different learning difficulties.
Someone with a learning difficulty will need to learn and take in information in a specialised or adapted way. Their need for this should not be seen as having an intellectual challenge.
Support and rights for people with learning difficulties
Schools should have trained staff who can support children with learning difficulties so that the learning environment can be adapted to help them learn.
Everyone with diagnosed learning difficulties has rights that are laid out in the Equality Act (2010). Under this Act, employers and services must make reasonable adjustments to support the person to fully participate and reach their potential. This includes making information accessible, like providing Easy Read materials. Or, for example, if someone with dyslexia could be given more time to complete a reading or writing task at work. This would be a reasonable adjustment to support them.
Learning disability affects every individual differently. It is often difficult to identify if someone has a learning disability.
A learning disability is a lifelong condition that starts before adulthood. It can be defined as:
A reduced ability to understand new or difficult information and to learn new skills.
A reduced ability to cope and live independently.
Having a lasting effect on development.
Learning disabilities can be separated into four types: mild, moderate, severe or profound.
Mencap is a charity that works to improve the lives of people with learning disabilities.
They define learning disabilities as:
A reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities which affects someone for their whole lives. For example: household tasks, socialising or managing money.
Someone with a learning disability may have difficulty with:
Remembering basic information, for example their date of birth or address.
Understanding and writing text, and filling in forms.
Explaining emotional experiences.
Understanding and processing new information.
Understanding and telling the time, or a chronological order of events.
Recognising signs, numbers or money.
Planning and organising activities for themselves.
You can hear from people with learning disabilities talk about how they see learning disabilities in this video produced by Mencap.
It’s important to remember that someone with a learning disability could also have a learning difficulty.
Support and rights for people with learning disabilities
People with learning disabilities will need support throughout their life. However, the level and type of support will differ from person to person. Someone with a mild learning disability may only need support with something like applying for a job. Someone with profound learning disabilities may need round the clock care and support with all aspects of their life.
As with learning difficulties, learning disability is also covered by the Equality Act (2010). People with learning disabilities can expect the businesses and services they use to make reasonable adjustments to help them participate. For example, someone may need an Easy Read version of an appointment letter, health materials, an agreement or form, a report or information about a consultation so that they can provide feedback. These would be reasonable adjustments.
The Oliver McGowan Mandatory Training on Learning Disability and Autism https://www.hee.nhs.uk/our-work/learning-disability/current-projects/oliver-mcgowan-mandatory-training-learning-disability-autism