How to Define and Categorise Learning Disabilities
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 DisabilityA 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,
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 DisabilityOne 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 DysfunctionIt 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.