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Learning Difficulty or Learning Disability

Author: Wendy Perez

Sometimes people use words that make me feel angry or make me switch off. For example some people still use the words ‘mental handicap’ to talk about me and people like me.

For me the words ‘mental handicap’ suggest someone who is not giving to society and is always taking.

In other countries other words are used, for example intellectual disability or developmental disability. But in the United Kingdom there are two main terms used:

  • People with a learning disability
  • People with a learning difficulty

But many people find these terms confusing.

Department of Health prefers the term ‘learning disability’ this is its definition:

"A learning disability is a “significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information, to learn new skills, reduced ability to cope independently which starts before adulthood with lasting effects on development."

[Department of Health. Valuing People: A New Strategy for Learning Disability for the 21st Century. 2001].

Many organisations also use ‘learning disability’ but there has always been much discussion about this and there always will be.

I prefer ‘learning difficulty’ because I think with time and support people can learn how to do things, even when they have a disability. As long as they get the right support - this is what I have found in my life. The term ‘learning disability’ may put people off and stop people from trying things.

People have pushed me to do things and I have been able to prove that I can compete at the same level with others. I would not be where I am today if I had not believed in myself and if others had not believed in me.

But when people use the word ‘learning disability’ it may encourage them or their supporters to have lower expectations or to think people always need assistance, when actually people can do more for themselves.

What is really important is that you see me as a person, not a label - you seem me as me. I want you to see the whole of me and to remember that I belong in society and I have a right to live my own life, in my own way.

If you have to use a label I prefer the label ‘person with a learning difficulty.’ I can live with ‘learning disability’ because I know this is the term used in organisations that I sometimes work with. But I certainly cannot live with terms like ‘mental handicap,’ so when people use them I switch off completely - its a word that hurts.


The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Learning Difficulty or Learning Disability © Wendy Perez 2015.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.