Definitions of learning disability and learning difficulties Language is changing all the time. The words we use to describe a particular impairment or disability change as a result of  listening to people with personal experience and as a result of changing values and attitudes in society. In addition, the same words can have different meanings in different countries.

Although we share a common language with countries such as America and Australia the words we use to describe particular disabilities related to learning are different.

People can often find the term ‘learning disability’ confusing because there are several different explanations about what a learning disability is. Learning disability and learning difficulties are terms that are commonly used in the UK. These two terms are often interchangeable when used in the context of health and social care for adults. Some people with learning disabilities prefer the term learning difficulties.

There are several definitions of learning disability used in the UK. A commonly used one is from Valuing People: a new strategy for learning disability for the 21st century, the government White Paper for England about health and social care support for people with a learning disability (2001). It explains that a learning disability includes the presence of:

  • a significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information or to learn new skills; MM a reduced ability to cope independently;
  • an impairment that started before adulthood, with a lasting effect on development.
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