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How to Define and Categorise Learning Disabilities

By: Lucy Debenham BA (hons) - Updated: 15 Apr 2015 | comments*Discuss
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It is estimated that around 1 in 220 children in the UK has some level of learning disability. There are many conditions and syndromes that are encompassed and defined under the umbrella term ‘learning disabilities’. The term learning disability basically means that the child or adult has difficulty in picking up new skills, both intellectually and socially. However, the labelling of any individual can be misleading and inappropriate, as all learning disabilities or difficulties vary according to the individual concerned.

Define Learning Disability

A learning disability is not a disease and is not an illness, and is not acquired in adulthood or as a result of injury or disease. A learning disability will be evident from childhood, and in many cases the cause of the learning disability may not be clear. In other cases, genetics, chromosomal abnormalities or environmental factors may be cited as the cause. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has defined learning disabilities as,

“a state of arrested or incomplete development of mind”

It is also thought that a person should display three fundamental criteria before being diagnosed as having a learning disability. These are identified by three approaches, namely:

  • Assessing any intellectual impairment (IQ)
  • Assessing social dysfunction combined with IQ
  • Identifying of early onset of the above

Some people with learning disabilities do, however, tend to use the term ‘learning difficulties’, although this does tend to refer to problems with learning in children rather than an overall description of functional and intellectual impairment.

But the WHO definition, as with so many other definitions used within the criminal justice system or mental health legislation, are always open to interpretation and discussion. In effect there is no one definitive answer with clear boundaries that can be identified on a learning disability spectrum.

It is also worth noting that each learning disability condition or syndrome has different symptoms and behaviours associated with it, and the way in which these manifest themselves can and do depend on the individual. Consequently it is important to remember first and foremost that when defining and categorising a learning disability, one is not merely labelling an individual. The overall impact and level of support and care required will always, therefore, be assessed based on the individual person and their social context.

Categorise A Learning Disability

One can categorise learning disabilities into four very basic groups – mild, moderate and severe and profound. Intellectual impairment based on IQ scores is one way to categorise a learning disability:

  • 50-70 - Mild
  • 35-50 - Moderate
  • 20-35 - Severe
  • less than 20 - Profound

As aforementioned, an IQ score is not sufficient in wholly defining the level of learning disability. This is because IQ scores can fluctuate due to personal development and growth. Most people with mild learning disabilities integrate into society with little problem, owing to their ability to communicate through spoken language and adapting to their social environment. Lower level support, particularly during schooling may help with managing the learning disabilities in these cases.

However, those with moderate or severe learning disabilities may also display other associated physical and mental health problems. This can mean that they may be more vulnerable and require additional support with healthcare management, mobility and continence.

Social Dysfunction

It is important to have a good understanding of the needs of each person with a learning disability, and they may well be assessed to ascertain what provisions can be made to aid their learning and help with some basic needs such as washing, dressing and feeding. In these cases, people with profound learning disabilities have what is known as high individual support needs and can be almost entirely dependent on others for support and care with day-to-day activities.

Social dysfunction is also difficult to categorise or quantify, owing to the range of social functions (communication, keeping safe, recognising risks, eating) and person’s social context. Gender, religion, age and culture are all important aspects that are taken into consideration when measuring social impairment.

In the past few years there have been moves to encourage self advocacy as well as social and community inclusion, rather than institutionalising. It is felt that support via social care, support staff in educational establishments and in the workplace and a general move towards person-centred planning will help people with learning disabilities gain more control over their lives.

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@happychickensummer. Your social worker or someone from Mencap is the best person to speak to about this. They will be able to go with you to look at potential accommodation - it would help them a lot if you explain what you've written here as well.
AboutLearningDisabilities - 16-Apr-15 @ 12:42 PM
Advice on care homes and supported living I want an middle to higer care and support I am looking at an care home next Wednesday they sounds nice on the phone And the booklet sounds good but how I can the right levels if of care and support that I need As have lots of problems i went to an special school in Poole Dorset 8 to 16 yeas old And an lot of my friends from school live at the grange care home in Parkstone Where mum dad are in Parkstone Poole shops doctors dentist hopsptoan And can have an pet dog or cat there witch is all that I want friendship fun supported like Was at my special school in Poole witch I think about every day and every night And small groups of people supported love life fun happy times I am happy but worried too as lived in adult placement shared life's but they Not worked supported living not working I want the life of an younger 30 year old person Dreams goals wishes happy times fun times to enjoy life somewhere Not in the way left out or told off the time wichi happens at Chaldon road Mencap care home as I don't feel i can talk to the staff ask for help advice care support fun Going out and about money bills rents problems I have an weekly time table Monday well for life club Every Monday ten to 4 pm Every Monday Tuesday well for life club Every Tuesday Wednesday lunch club Home care Thursday me mum day club 21 Friday house home day Washing cooking money clean Shopping Saturday friendship Sunday puffin muffin every Sunday Love happy chicken
Happy chicken summer - 15-Apr-15 @ 6:58 PM
@isiship. We've contacted our writer for these details and will try and post them when we can.
AboutLearningDisabilities - 1-Dec-14 @ 11:22 AM
I asked a question recently about the standardised test which you've used to delineate the levels of severity of learning disability which you quote (mild, severe, profound etc) but it seems to have disappeared. Could you answer please?
isiship - 28-Nov-14 @ 12:28 PM
@happy chicken. What a shame that you are struggling like this. It's a bit difficult for us to give advice on how you can improve things as we do not know what level of support you are getting. You need to get someone to help you speak with social services who can make a more detailed assessment and give you the help you need. Good luck.
AboutLearningDisabilities - 28-Oct-14 @ 9:58 AM
How I can my house to see that I have an moderate to serive learning disabity But my house what to make me less disabled then I am witch I feel is wrong And is making my time at the house sad upset and worrying for ,me And I feel like I have to be more disabled just to get help and support that I feel I rightly need As I am veroblr and worry about shopping going out bad about As I don't know how much chage I get in shops suppprt market Meals out drinks as don't how ,much to pay for the meal at the end And things that 30 year old people do and live there life I lovekids games festival Halloween and Christmas And birthday and kids DVD story tapes party food party clothes Kids art craft set picture bingo picture games bowling skittles Games any advice would be great reaves And how I can make supported living work out for me As it not at the moment
Happy chicken. - 25-Oct-14 @ 1:00 PM
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