Learning disabilities

About 1.5 million people in the UK have a learning disability, according to the charity Mencap. People with a learning disability find it harder than others to learn, understand and communicate. People with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) need full-time help with every aspect of their lives – including eating, drinking, washing, dressing and toileting.

What causes learning disability?

There are many different causes of learning disability and often it is not possible to say why someone has a learning disability. But most learning disabilities are caused by the way the brain develops before, during or soon after birth. Causes can be genetic or due to maternal illness during pregnancy, a baby not getting enough oxygen during childbirth or early childhood illness.

The latest learning disability jobs

The lives of people with learning disabilities

The most comprehensive survey of the lives of adults with learning disabilities was commissioned by the Department of Health in 2003-4. This found:

  • 83% were unemployed but 65% wanted to work.
  • 36% were in training or education.
  • 55% were living with a parent, 15% were in residential care and 2% were living in NHS long-stay accommodation.
  • 52% of parents with learning disabilities were living with their children.

Research from 1995 on the health outcomes of people with learning disabilities (McGuigan et al), collated by Mencap, found that learning disabled people were 58 times more likely to die before they turned 50 than the general population and four times more likely to have a preventable cause of death.

Since these pieces of research were carried out, governments across the UK have striven to improve the lives of people with learning disabilities in terms of health, housing, education, employment and social care. Key achievements include ending the use of NHS long-stay accommodation to house people with learning disabilities in England.

However, vast inequalities remain.

Social care for people with learning disabilities

People with learning disabilities are among the major client groups to receive adult social care.

They accounted for 10% of the 1.54m people receiving council-funded community-based social care in England in 2009-10.

Of the £16.8bn spent by English councils on adult social care in 2009-10, 24% was spent on people with learning disabilities, according to figures from the NHS Information Centre

Expenditure on people with learning disabilities grew by 24% in real terms from 2004-5 to 2009-10, faster than for any other client group.

Abuse scandals

The recent history of learning disability care contains a number of abuse scandals in residential settings run by the NHS or independent healthcare providers:

  • Winterbourne View. A BBC Panorama programme on May 31, 2011, exposed alleged abuse at a hospital run by Castlebeck that subsequently closed. 
  • Sutton and Merton. Institutional abuse was exposed by regulators in 2007 at services run by Sutton and Merton Primary Care Trust, including Orchard Hill, the last long-stay hospital in England.
  • Cornwall. Abuse was exposed by regulators in 2006 at services run by Cornwall Partnership NHS Trust.

Improvements have taken place subsequently, particularly in Sutton and Merton, with evidence showing that former Orchard Hill residents are thriving in the community.

The Winterbourne View case has sparked a number of reviews, including a serious case review and a national audit of hospital provision for people with learning disabilities in England, due to start in autumn 2011.

Special reports

The long stays facing many people with learning disabilities in private hospitals

Good practice on learning disability

Supporting parents with learning disabilities

Good practice in residential care for people with learning disabilities

Improving healthcare for people with learning disabilities

Safeguarding learning disabled victims of forced marriage

A service for people with Down’s syndrome and dementia

Policy on learning disability

Valuing People White Paper (2001)

Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (brought in under the Mental Health Act 2007)

Valuing People Now strategy (2009)

More information


Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities

British Institute of Learning Disabilities

Learning Disability Coalition

Association for Real Change

Enable Scotland

Find a care provider in learning disabilities services at our online Purchasing Care Directory

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