Education and support for people with learning disabilities

Gaining an education and developing skills to take into a career is something many people may take for granted, but for those who have a learning disability, there are often many hurdles to overcome along the way.

It can be difficult to find the right support because some learning disabilities can take years to be diagnosed. Even when you do find a network to aid your child’s learning, the change to their environment can bring many obstacles, including anxiety, frustration, and loneliness.

Having a support network can be crucial to a young person’s education. As the UK’s Covid-19 induced lockdown enters a fourth month, that time out of the classroom and away from educational support could bring all these obstacles to the fore.

With that in mind, The Royal Mencap Society, a UK-based charity that works with people with a learning disability, has centered this year’s Learning Disability Week — held 15th-21st June — around the importance of friendships during lockdown.

Here, we look at education for people with a learning disability and what support is available.

What is a learning disability?

Learning disabilities are quite varied but often refer to a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities. Some learning disabilities are known at birth, while others can develop over time.

People with a learning disability tend to take longer to learn and may need support to learn new skills and develop social interactions. In the UK, it is estimated that 1.5 million people have a learning disability. Mencap reports that approximately 351,000 children aged 0-17 are living with a learning disability.

What support is there?

A 2018 report from the Department of Education said that 9.3 per cent of students with special education needs (SEN) attended special schools. These schools were originally set up following the 1944 Education Act, which created provision for children with disabilities to receive ‘special education treatment’.

Special schools differ in their specialisms, with four broad types outlined by the government as communication and interaction, cognition and learning, social, emotional and mental health, and sensory and physical needs.

A higher ratio of staff ensures that pupils receive the support required for their needs, with more teaching assistants also helping to meet the learners’ needs. While educational attainment is tracked at school, most will also focus on developing life skills around socialising, job hunting, and extra-curricular activities.

Disability benefits are also offered by the government, but a 2018 report found that 56 per cent of families stated the benefits only partly covered the additional costs of raising a disabled child. The Contact a Family survey reported that one third of families claiming costs of more than £300 per month extra for their disabled child.

Often the assistance for children with learning disabilities falls short as they enter adult life, but more colleges and universities are making the transition from the teenage years much easier with dedicated support networks being implemented.

At Newcastle College, provision is made through a Learning Difficulties and Physical Disabilities Team, part of a bigger central support team that offers support for a range of learning, physical and medical needs. It involves one to one support in class, while trained learning support assistants are on hand for support between lessons, and social spaces are provided for those who want them.

They offer special exam considerations and support in finding accessible work placements. Prospective students will undergo a support needs assessment with regular reviews ensuring the support continues throughout their college experience. A specialist transition and access team will also work with students to aid their adaptation to college, with officers qualified in providing personal care support, administering medication, and first aid.

Learning disability in lockdown

Life in lockdown is one that has had a huge impact on the nation’s mental health. That is the same for people with a learning disability. When schools and colleges closed in mid-March, a network of support was cut off. In December, Mencap announced that people with a learning disability are seven times more likely than the general public to feel lonely.

This was supported by the Office for National Statistics in April, which showed 8.3 per cent of adults with a disability reported often or always feeling lonely. This is much higher than non-disabled adults at 3.6 per cent.

Mencap is celebrating Learning Disability Week with an online campaign focused on befriending others and celebrating connections through the #MencapFamily hashtag. The campaign encourages people to share their experiences and anxieties in lockdown. They are advised to make the most of virtual social interactions at a time when they are not possible through educational means.

The government have made huge strides in developing an education for all, and the avenues for people with learning disabilities have grown rapidly. Of the 32,770 schools listed in the UK, 1,257 are special schools. A further 352 pupil referral units ­—schools catering for children who are unable to attend mainstream school, ensuring people who need additional support have the streams to receive it.