Specific Learning Difficulty vs. Learning Disability – What’s the difference?

Something I so often see in various places – social media, presentations and in general conversation – is the confusion of the terms ‘specific learning difficulty’ and ‘learning disability’, where ‘specific learning difficulties’ are often referred to as a ‘learning difficulty’ or ‘learning disability’. It is something which does frustrate me, as I feel it’s important that both categories of disability get the understanding and recognition they deserve. Equally, it’s something I’m passionate about. I have talked about it briefly in my blogs before but having seen more and more of this confusion, I thought I would dedicate a blog post specifically to cover it. For clarification, this is in relation to the terminology in the UK (the terminology in America is different, which is something I will cover in this post).

To start with, what is a ‘Specific Learning Difficulty’? A specific learning difficulty (sometimes known as a specific learning difference and often shortened to SpLD) is “a difference or difficulty with particular aspects of learning” [1]. Examples of SpLDs include dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and ADD/ADHD. SpLDs are independent of an individual’s intelligence – they mean we have difficulties with particular areas of learning. For example, dyspraxia is an SpLD because it affects certain aspects of our learning such as handwriting, concentration and short term memory. It may make learning more of a challenge due to the areas it does affect and the fact that we are slower to process information, for example, but it does not affect our overall intelligence. Each individual will be affected differently, in terms of both the SpLD (or SpLDs – it’s common to have more than one!) they have and the way in which it affects them. When I found out that dyspraxia was classified as a ‘specific learning difficulty’ I did find it a little confusing to start with, as at the time I saw it as more physical as opposed to relating to learning, but as I’ve understood more about dyspraxia over time and how it affects me this terminology has made more sense!

A learning disability refers to a “reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities” [2]. It is sometimes, but not always, associated with a particular diagnosis – such as Down’s Syndrome. A learning disability can vary in its severity and can be mild, moderate, severe or profound.

In some situations, education in particular, the term ‘difficulty’ is used instead of ‘disability’. The abbreviation MLD is used for moderate learning difficulties, SLD for severe learning difficulties and PMLD for profound and multiple learning difficulties. Although I may be incorrect in this, I think the term ‘learning difficulty’ is also more likely to be used than ‘learning disability’ when an individual hasn’t had an official assessment/diagnosis for a learning disability.

To make it even more complicated, the terminology is different in America! In America, a learning disability is known as an intellectual disability and a specific learning difficulty is known as a learning disability. In addition, the DSM-5 and ICD-10 (manuals used for the purposes of diagnosis) use other terms, such as ‘specific learning disorder’ – which adds to the complexity of the terminology!

SpLD vs LD.001

One place in particular where I see the terminology confused is in news articles. There will be a headline talking about a person with a learning difficulty and I’ll click on the article only to find that the ‘learning difficulty’ they are referring to is dyspraxia. This is frustrating because news articles are more likely to be read by wider audiences, perhaps people who wouldn’t normally be likely to read something about dyspraxia or know a lot about it. From reading news articles such as these, they will receive the incorrect information. What I’ve also noticed in some articles is that when talking about people who have both a specific learning difficulty and a learning disability, the distinction isn’t always made clear.

I don’t want to seem pedantic over this, some people may wonder why it matters. It’s so that both categories of conditions get the right support and understanding (and also because I’m a very black and white and literal thinker!) It also applies to eligibility criteria in terms of getting support – for example, if one of the eligibility criteria for something is that it is for people with a learning disability, it is important that people are aware of what this means so they know whether it is something they have access to or not. As I mentioned earlier in this post, I understand why people do get confused as the terminology is very similar, but getting it right is so important!

Differences between SpLD and LD.001

[1] https://www.helenarkell.org.uk/about-dyslexia/what-is-an-spld.php

[2] https://www.mencap.org.uk/learning-disability-explained/what-learning-disability

Natalie 🙂

5 thoughts on “Specific Learning Difficulty vs. Learning Disability – What’s the difference?

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  1. people never see the every day effects .there views/judgements are very Snotty Nosed .i take part in a lot lot research .i have aspergers and m.e .long list health issues
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  2. I’m so glad you explained this terminology. Now I can say Dyspraxia is a ‘specific learning disability.’ When I’d just say learning disability I’d immediately get told “No you can’t have that, you’re perfectly intelligent.” Now I can correct what I’m saying and hopefully how everyone reacts to it!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I was thinking about this and for me it is debilitating because it effects my memory (I Even blank on what I’ve just said to people, ten minutes later) and concentration and getting numbers/times mixed up so badly, I actually need help a lot of the time. But I can appreciate why others would ‘difficulty’ instead.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I get what you mean with that, I do consider dyspraxia to be a disability – I personally just don’t use the terms ‘learning disability’ together due to a learning disability being a separate disability itself. But I do understand what you’re saying – I definitely consider it to be a disability otherwise.

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