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What is learning disability?

'Learning disability' is a term used in a very specific way in the United Kingdom. The dimensions of this term are defined by the World Health Organisation as:

  • a state of arrested or incomplete development of mind
  • significant impairment of intellectual functioning
  • significant impairment of adaptive/social functioning

This means that somebody with a learning disability will have difficulties in understanding, difficulties in learning new things and generalising these to new situations. They may have difficulties with social tasks (e.g. communication, self-care, awareness of and responses to danger etc.) and these difficulties will vary dependent upon the extent and nature of the disability.

A further dimension is that these impairments and difficulties are present from childhood, not acquired as a result of accident or following the onset of adult illness.

Learning disabilities & learning difficulties
The term 'learning disabilities' was adopted as a definition in the UK following a policy speech to Parliament given by the then Secretary of State for Health Stephen Dorrell. Many people who are described as having learning disabilities prefer to use the term 'learning difficulties'. This term also has a very specific meaning in relation to educational attainments. The self advocacy movement also points out that every person described as having a learning disability is a 'person first'. People First is the name adopted by the international self advocacy movement, whose call is to 'label jars - not people!'