by Anna Carter (intermediary)
This year, Learning Disability Week is all about busting myths about living with a learning disability. Learning disabilities affect individuals in all sorts of ways and every person with a learning disability has their own unique strengths and challenges. However, learning disabilities are often surrounded by misconceptions that can lead to stereotypes and hinder support.
It is estimated that 4-6% of the entire population has a learning disability. The exact cause of learning disability is much debated. Sometimes it is because a person’s brain development is affected [NHS] either pre-birth, during birth or in their early childhood. There are also some health conditions that may pre-dispose someone to a learning disability, for example cerebral palsy and foetal alcohol syndrome.
Learning disabilities can vary in severity and they are typically categorised as severe, moderate, or mild, based on the impact they have on an individual’s daily life. The measurement and classification of learning disabilities involve a comprehensive evaluation by professionals such as a psychologist.
This Learning Disability Week, Mencap are campaigning to smash preconceptions and stereotypes about who people with learning disabilities are and what they can do. For many people, it’s all about access. With the right support and adaptations, people with learning disabilities can overcome societal barriers and achieve their goals, whatever they might be. Read on to discover the stories of individuals who demonstrate that a learning disability does not limit one’s potential.
But first, let’s tackle some other misconceptions about learning disabilities…
Myth 1 – Learning disabilities and learning difficulties are the same thing.
“Learning disability” and “Learning difficulty” are terms which are often used interchangeably, but there is a big difference between these two, distinct diagnoses.
Learning disability refers to overall reduced intellectual ability, which impacts learning across all areas of life, from experiences in education to daily living skills. For example, an individual with a learning disability may have struggled in school (without the correct support) and may find tasks like budgeting, planning and time management challenging. It’s important to note, whilst learning disabilities can make some aspects of everyday life more challenging, individuals with learning disabilities also possess unique strengths and talents, whether that is deep empathy, outstanding creativity and anything in between.
Learning difficulty, meanwhile, is an umbrella term which describes a range of specific difficulties that can impact learning, such as dyslexia, ADHD or dyscalculia. Unlike a learning disability, learning difficulties do not affect the overall intellectual ability of an individual. For example, a person with dyslexia may have above average intellectual abilities, but may find specific literacy skills challenging.
Myth 2 – Learning disabilities can be outgrown.
Learning disabilities are lifelong conditions which are usually present from birth. While individuals with learning disabilities may develop strategies to manage any challenges they face, the learning difficulties themselves will persist for the duration of life. This doesn’t mean that individuals with learning disabilities can’t achieve success. Instead, they may need to find ways to navigate skills they struggle with.
To give an analogy, a person who is diabetic can still be an amazing athlete, but they need to figure out how to balance their medical condition with their training. In the same way, people who have a learning disability can achieve their goals but may require adaptations (like access to easy read documents) and different strategies (like identifying when and how best to seek support) to do so. Early identification and intervention is therefore essential to support individuals with learning disabilities to thrive.
Myth 3 – Having a learning disability means you can’t be successful.
Many individuals with a learning disability have achieved great success in various fields. It’s important to remember that having a learning disability may affect how an individual processes and understands information. But it does not mean they are incapable of learning or achieving their goals. People with learning disabilities have proved countless times that they can achieve remarkable success, challenging the misconception that they cannot be successful. Below are some examples of individuals with learning disabilities who have achieved significant accomplishments:
Alastair has Angelman syndrome, a rare genetic condition that affects the nervous system and causes severe physical and learning disabilities. Alastair is a creative artist, skateboarder and explorer. He has spread the message that being non-verbal doesn’t mean a person lacks understanding – the key is communicating in the right way.
John Cronin is the co-founder to a successful business, John’s Crazy Socks! He has Down Syndrome, and, along with his father, he turned his passion for colourful and creative socks into a successful business. Through his business, he advocates for the abilities and contributions of individuals with disabilities. John has shown that people with learning disabilities can excel in the workplace. His business challenges stereotypes and encourages others to pursue their goals.
Jessica Jane Applegate
Jessica Applegate is another remarkable individual with learning disabilities. She is a paralympic swimming champion who had competed at a global level. This requires immense physical and mental endurance, highlighting her determination, discipline and ability to overcome obstacles.
Jessica has shattered stereotypes and evidenced that individuals with learning disabilities can achieve whatever they set their mind to. She is an inspiration and role model showing the potential for people living with learning disabilities.
Ellie Goldstein is a British model with Down Syndrome. In recent years, Ellie has been busy breaking down barriers in the fashion industry. She has recently become the first model with Down Syndrome to feature on the cover of the British Vogue magazine. Her talent has caught the attention of other brands and designers. Ellie’s success has inspired and empowered many people with disabilities to pursue their dreams in the fashion industry. Her success highlights the beauty of diversity.
These individuals, among many others, have demonstrated that having a learning disability does not define a person’s potential for success. These remarkable individuals and their accomplishments serve as a testament to the importance of inclusive attitudes, equal opportunities, and supportive environments that enable individuals with learning disabilities to reach their full potential.
Myth 4 – Individuals with learning disability can’t understand legal proceedings.
Individuals with learning disabilities can be supported to understand legal proceedings to ensure they can effectively participate in the legal system. At Communicourt, we support people with a range of communication difficulties to help them understand their trial or hearing. Here are some key strategies which may assist:
- Highlight the topic and speak about one subject at a time. It may help to use a visual list of topics in conference (or an order of proceedings), crossing each off once complete.
- Use simple language. Choose everyday words and use short, simple sentences.
- Break complex information down and provide visual aids to enhance understanding.
- Create a supportive environment. For example, allow an individual with learning disabilities extra time to comprehend proceedings, allow the presence of a trusted friend or family member to provide emotional support, or ensure written material is accessible in easy-read formats. You can download a free guide to creating easy read documents from the Communicourt Access Brief (see more below).
- Implement reasonable adjustments. This might include advocates providing questions in advance of evidence to an intermediary to ensure the questions are framed in the best possible way.
- Have a Ground Rules Hearing. At this hearing, everyone involved in the case can be alerted to the specific requirements of the individual, as well as strategies which can improve their understanding and participation. Search The Access Brief for a free guide to Ground Rules Hearings.
By implementing these strategies, many individuals with a learning disability can be better supported to understand and engage with legal proceeding.
Individuals with learning disabilities can excel in their chosen area, break barriers, and contribute meaningfully. They inspire others by challenging stereotypes, promoting inclusion, and showing the abilities of those with learning disabilities. This Learning Disability Week let’s dismantle misconceptions and myths by reminding ourselves of the strengths, talents, and resilience of individuals with learning disabilities. The journey of myth busting does not end here – let’s carry the spirit of learning disability week forward!
Download our free, bite-sized guide to working with someone who has a Learning Disability in legal proceedings from The Access Brief.