Understanding learning disabilities

If you have a learning disability, or you know someone who does, this article will help you understand how get the right skills and support.

Boy smiling at the camera

You can't always tell if someone has a learning disability by looking at them

What is a learning disability?

A learning disability is when you find it hard to understand things, and this affects everyday life and how you learn.

Learning disabilities affect people for their whole lives, but there are ways to cope. Lots of people with learning disabilities can live independently if they get the right support.

A learning disability is not the same as a learning difficulty, because a learning difficulty doesn’t affect your IQ or your intellect. So dyslexia is a learning difficulty not a learning disability.

What causes a learning disability?

Learning disabilities occur for many different reasons. Generally, it’s related to the brain’s development before, during or soon after birth, and sometimes in early childhood. Often, however, the cause is unknown. If you have another condition, like Down’s syndrome or autism (LINK) you could have a learning disability as well.

Living with a learning disability

Learning disabilities can’t be cured and you can’t grow out of one. However, a learning disability can be successfully managed, if you’re equipped with the right skills, and given the support you need.

Can I be independent if I have a learning disability?

If you’re living at home and you’re keen to move out, it’s vital you learn the basic skills to take care of yourself. This begins by talking to your parent(s) or carer, and considering the following areas:

Living alone – If you’re thinking about moving out, is suitable accommodation available? Will anyone be looking out for you? Do you need help with specific tasks, such as dealing with a central heating system?

Domestic duties – Are you able to keep the place clean and secure?

Preparing meals – Can you cook for yourself? Are you aware of basic standards of hygiene and safety? Do you need help with grocery shopping?

Money matters – Are you financially independent? Can you live on a budget and pay bills on time?

Getting around – Are you confident using public transport? Are you able to get yourself from A to B without problems? Alternatively, are you equipped with strategies for dealing with difficulties i.e. carrying a mobile phone with the number of someone who can help you out?

The prospect may seem daunting for some, but over time and with support it’s possible for anyone with a learning disability to achieve a degree of independence and freedom that suits them.

How can I cope at college or university with a learning disability?

If you have a learning disability and are still in education, it’s vital that you make your school or college aware of your situation. By talking openly about your needs, they can look into ways to tackle any difficulties you’re having.

By becoming aware of your strengths and weaknesses, it’s possible to fulfil your potential in all areas of life.

Can I get a job if I have a learning disability?

Getting a job is harder if you have a disability, but it’s not impossible and lots of people do work. Learn what your strengths and weaknesses are and what you could work as. You can contact these organisations for more help:

Mencap has lots of information on getting a job if you have a learning disability.

The Shaw Trust help people find work, you can find your nearest centre here.

You can go to your local jobcentre and talk to them.

How can I support someone with a learning disability?

Be a friend – a lot of people with learning disabilities are bullied or left out, so one of the most important things you can do is treat them with respect.

Learn about their learning disability – the more you know the better friend you can be.

Be patient – they may take longer to learn things or understand things than you, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth explaining things.

With support, a learning disability doesn’t have to prevent you from achieving the same goals as anyone else.

Caring for somebody with a learning disability.

Caring for someone with a learning disability means constantly reviewing the situation in order to remain aware of any source of help, encouragement and support that’s available.

Some people with learning disabilities may also have physical disabilities, and require a great deal of care. Others enjoy independent lives.

Mencap is a great place to seek support if you’re caring for someone with learning disabilities.

If you’re their main carer, get support yourself.


Next Steps

  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.




Updated on 29-Sep-2015

Photo of smiling boy by Shutterstock.