Intellectual disability ≠ learning difference

Intellectual disability ≠ learning difference

One of the biggest challenges faced by new caregivers while researching on the internet is the confusion caused by the seemingly interchangeable use of terms “intellectual disability”, “learning disability”, “learning disorder”, and “learning difference”.

Not all of these terms are interchangeable. Each has a different meaning and represents a different set of conditions.

Intellectual disability is marked by <70 score on intelligence test (IQ), delay in meeting growth milestones as experienced by other children (learning to coo, talk, crawl, walk) and/or significantly impeded adaptive behaviour.

Learning disability (ID) makes acquiring one or more academic skills very challenging like in Dyslexia (reading difficulty), Dyscalculia (difficulty doing math), Dysgraphia (challenges in writing) [1]. It is a difference in brain function caused by biological factors. Persons with a learning disability have normal to above-normal intelligence [2]. They can and do excel professionally, but may face challenges academically. It is also a life-long challenge that has to be coped with.

Then there are different learning styles or more accurately ‘multiple intelligences’ – simply a difference in the way the brain receives and processes information. It has eight basic categories as proposed by Harvard professor Howard Gardner: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, musical, naturalistic, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal [3]. These are the different types of intelligences that all human beings have to varying degrees, with a dominant type defining the way a person would process information. It is in this view that the multimedia method of learning has gained ground globally in recent years. 

But many websites use ‘learning disability’ to define the same set of conditions that are consistent with intellectual disability. While others will use ‘learning disability’ to describe ‘multiple intelligences’ or the difference in the way a person acquires skills.

This happens because different countries have a different disability language.

USA terminology

Intellectual disability (formerly mental retardation) is used to refer to the group of neurodevelopmental conditions including ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, Fragile X Syndrome to name a few.

There are differences within the sector over the use of this term, with some preferring learning disability. But ID is used widely to ensure correct medical diagnosis so children and young adults can get the required educational, medical, social assistance and economic opportunity as is mandated by law.Learning Disability and Learning Disorder are the same thing in the USA. It is an identified weakness in certain academic skills like reading, writing, doing math with the most common ones being Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia. Some learning disabilities are a mosaic of all these, getting identified as LD-NOS or “learning disorder not otherwise specified”.

UK terminology

Learning disability is used instead of intellectual disability (ID) to denote the relatively reduced ability of all individuals with this condition to understand new or complex information, learn skills, and cope independently. The use of this term shifts the emphasis from presumed inability to learn because of lower-than-average intellect (IQ<70) to their experience of difficulty in learning with a focus on solutions.

The use of this term, instead of intellectual and developmental disability, is required by law.

Learning difficulty is used for dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia etc instead of learning disability, underlining that the individual with the condition finds learning Skill X difficult because of atypical brain functioning.

An increasing number of people and organisations are also using cognitive diversity and neurodiversity to represent the full range of mental functioning, emotions, personalities, the different pace of learning and growth present in us all.

All these differences make it especially difficult for caregivers in India, where there is low availability of reader-friendly, fact-checked and sound information on intellectual and Developmental Disability (IDD).

The information presented by The Sarvodya Collective has inclusion at its heart. We use Indian-law friendly, inclusive terminology and language that evolves with global campaigns and advancements in science.

In all our material, intellectual disability is used to talk about all neurodevelopmental disabilities that affect the IQ and/or adaptive behaviour. We use specific learning disability (SLD) for dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia etc, and multiple intelligences for visual, auditory, reading-writing or kinesthetic styles of learning.