Skip to main content

What Are Learning Disabilities? How Common Are Learning Disabilities?

People have learning disabilities from birth, or develop them during infancy or childhood. A person with learning disabilities needs additional support with learning whilst at school, and with daily activities at school and as they live through their adult life. There are several definitions of learning disabilities, and some definitions require the person to have an intelligence quotient less than 70, such as the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases. Intelligence quotients are measured by intelligence tests (for example, testing verbal skills, reaction times and speed of learning new tasks), which allows a person’s scores to be compared with the range of scores achieved by large numbers of people on the same test. However, a person is much more than a number. Whilst people with learning disabilities may share some characteristics with other people with learning disabilities, such as needing additional support when at school, finding it hard to manage money and bills without help as an adult, or having insatiable appetite if they have Prader-Willi syndrome, every person is unique. Each child inherits a vast amount of genetic information from both their parents which is not shared with other children with learning disabilities, and as they grow up, their environment and experiences also shapes their development, interests, fears, hopes, ambitions, and characteristics. So even when a person has a clear genetic cause for their learning disabilities such as Down syndrome, they are unique from all other persons with Down syndrome.

People with learning disabilities learn throughout their life. A person who needs some additional support for learning in school may have acquired enough skills and experience when they are adults to live independently, hold down a job, have a close relationship and children. Their intelligence quotient would still be measured as less than 70, but they are not requiring much more additional support in their daily life than another person. Does such a person still have learning disabilities? By definition, no they do not. If they required social work or health services, would they go to the learning disabilities service for their care? Unlikely. Do they identify themselves as having learning disabilities? Probably not; and if not this view should be respected. However, a considerable proportion of children do go on to need lifelong support in view of their learning disabilities.

How many people have learning disabilities in Scotland?

Learning disabilities are quite common. There are more children than adults with learning disabilities. This is because children with learning disabilities need additional support at school to get the best chance to learn academic skills like reading and writing. As children and adults gradually learn skills, they may no longer need support to lead independent lives. Additionally, people with learning disabilities do not live as long as other people, so there are fewer people in older age groups.