What is a learning disability?

First of all, learning disability isn’t a mental illness, and it isn’t something that changes over time.

A learning disability is a reduced intellectual ability that might mean a person has difficulty with everyday activities – for example household tasks, socialising, or managing money. Learning disability affects someone for their whole life.

Sometimes needing support - not incapable

People with a learning disability tend to take longer to learn and may need support to develop new skills, understand complicated information and interact with other people. The level of support someone needs depends on the individual. For example, someone with a mild learning disability may only need support with things like getting a job. However, someone with a severe or profound learning disability may need full-time care and support with every aspect of their life.

Different types of learning disability

People with certain specific conditions can have a learning disability too. For example, people with Down’s syndrome and some people with autism have a learning disability. It’s important to remember that with the right support, most people with a learning disability in the UK can lead independent lives.

There are lots of scientific things we could tell you about learning disability, but the best way to understand it is to meet a person with a learning disability. 

Learning disability: the facts

  • There are 1.4 million people in the UK with a learning disability
  • 1,200 people with a learning disability die avoidably in hospitals every year
  • Just 6% of people with a learning disability known to social services are in paid employment
  • Children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) are twice as likely to be bullied as other children

What the public thinks about learning disability

We've come a long way, but negative attitudes towards learning disability still exist. Thankfully, most people are supportive of people with a learning disability, but there are some who still express really negative attitudes.

A survey we commissioned through Ipsos MORI about public attitudes found:

  • 6% of people would feel uncomfortable using the same swimming pool as someone with a severe learning disability
  • only 61% of people ‘strongly disagree’ that people who have a learning disability are a burden on society
  • just 67% of people agree that people with a mild learning disability can be as good parents as anyone else.

These negative attitudes, even if sometimes only from a minority of people, can have very significant impact on the lives of people with a learning disability.

Here I Am report

Read more of the findings from our exclusive report into public attitudes to learning disability conducted through Ipsos MORI

Download resource Here I Am campaign report

Here I Am report - easy read

Download the easy read version of our report for the Here I Am campaign

Download resource Here I Am report - easy read

Attitudes to learning disability

A few years ago it got very bad. We were walking in the street together and some school kids started to follow us, throwing stones and calling us names. A few days later Esther was sitting at a bus stop, and the same kids threw boiling water on her. We felt damaged and scared, but we know the future can be better and it’s why we’re involved with Mencap and Here I Am.

Richard Lawrence

About the stats used in our survey

An online survey was conducted using Ipsos’ online panel (IIS) with a UK sample of 2,002 online panelists aged 16 and over. Ipsos MORI and Mencap worked together to develop the survey questionnaire. Fieldwork took place between 28 April and 10 May 2016. Quotas were set by age and gender within each country, and region within England.

To allow for analysis by country, the number of responses from Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland were each boosted to 200. The data were weighted to ensure a nationally representative sample of people aged 16 and over in the UK. When interpreting the survey findings, it is important to remember that the results are based on a sample of the population, not the entire population, and are therefore subject to confidence intervals.

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