Differentiating between Learning Disability and Learning Difficulty


Can anyone point me towards any detailed guidance on differentiating between a specific learning difficulty, and a learning disability? My understanding is that a specific learning difficulty relates to individuals who have a difficulty in one or two areas only, but is able to function reasonably well in other areas. However, where an individual actually has fairly significant functional impairment in all environments due to difficulties with not only literacy and numeracy, but also with auditory and other sensory processing issues, slow information processing speed, poor working memory, emotional regulation, and word finding difficulties, would they not be considered to have a learning disability rather than a learning difficulty?


Hi, this is such an interesting consideration - I tend to find such conflicting information on this - although I’ve attached a discussion from the University of Bristol which is relevantlearning-disability-criteria.pdf (42.7 KB)
I’m looking forward to reading what other people think too


The British Institute of Learning Disabilities has published a useful guide to definitions of learning disabilities and learning difficulties. It can be found at:



Good question! Some of the difficulty in this country arises from the inconsistent terminologies used across health, education & social care.

Specific learning difficulty is the term used in education for dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia etc but not lower intellectual ability.

Education stats use the term learning difficulty (moderate, severe or profound & multiple) rather than learning disability; while health and social care use learning disability (and academia, intellectual disabilities). Someone with a specific learning difficulty may not have a learning or intellectual disability.

Useful glossary of health terms with helpful links: https://www.bacdis.org.uk/policy/documents/ExplanatoryGlossaryofTerms.pdf


The SEND guidance is useful on definine ‘Learning Difficulties’ which is an educational term, categorising different needs that impact on learning in educational settings. The severity relates to the need for educational resources and whether young people meet the threshold for an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) which replaces the old ‘Statements’. The confusion is that this term is not a clinical diagnosis. That doesn’t mean it isn’t valid for educational settings. Cancer, diabetes, sensory impairments and a broad range of other significant needs are included within the category of ‘learning difficulty’. This is quite appropriate for young people requiring additional support with their learning. What it doesn’t do it guarantee any specific access to health services… you need a diagnosis for that.
As for diagnosing ‘learning disabilities’ - the BPS definition is as solid as you’ll find anywhere. Meeting all THREE of the core criteria is essential:

  1. Age - must be in the developmental stages… onset before adulthood.
  2. IQ - under 70 (global intellectual impairment)
  3. Adaptive/Social Functioning (how you manage/cope in your environment, taking care of yourself)

Typically, in children’s services, the first 2 of the above are completed for an EHCP. However, the adaptive functioning bit is rarely (if ever) completed. Hence the problems with eligibility and protracted debates at transition, resulting in delayed decision making, frustrated families, expensive out of borough provision and lack of local service development.


Exactly…so according to the BILD definition, the individual I described would be classed as having a learning disability (as he was described as having severe learning difficulties in school), but according to the BPS definition, he wouldn’t, as his IQ is above 70. I’m glad everyone else is as clear as I am about this though. :slight_smile:


This just gets more confusing the more research I do… from following the various links it appears that the vast majority of health organisations use the BPS definition, but the Public Health England reports seem to be using the BILD definition. It is not immediately clear to me whether they even realise that there is an issue with the contradictory definitions…

The 2015 PHE report states that estimates suggest that only 23% of adults with learning disabilities in England are identified as such on GP registers. The report doesn’t say as much, but the GP registers obtain their information from Social Services departments, and therefore that suggests that only 23% of adults with LD are on the Social Services LD lists also. I wonder whether any research has been carried out to establish how many adults there are, who meet with BILD/PHE criteria, but who don’t meet with BPS criteria.