What do you know about Learning Disability?

Who are they, what is the name?

If there is one group of people who has the greatest number of names, it is this group. Who am I referring to? Which group?
          Mental Deficiency, Sub-normal, Mental Retardation, Mental Handicap, Learning Difficulties, Learning Disabilities, Developmental Disabilities, Developmentally Delayed, Intellectual Handicap, Intellectually Impaired, Slow Developer, Slow Learner, What Next?

One wonders why down through the ages right up to this modern day of enlightenment and advancement in technology that we should still have such a problem in giving a name! The many different names and constantly changing names - do they not reflect our inability to understand the disability and also how we perceive the people who have it?

One big hindrance to our understanding of people with disabilities is that we the so-called normal people have the tendency to put others who are not like us into categories for our own convenience. So and so has this characteristics which makes him as one belonging to this category. Obviously, a name has to be given and this is where the problem lies, in giving a name. How can we possibly give a single name to a group of individuals?

We must learn by now that we can't put people into boxes, not even this group of people!

As a teacher I believe a name is useful while the person is a student in a school or a trainee training for an occupation. There, the difficulties that the person faces must be clearly defined, by names if you like, only so that appropriate help could be given. Once that help is given to the extent that the person can overcome his difficulty, the name is no more significant or helpful for the person. As service providers, or as people who sincerely desire to improve the welfare of people with disabilities, I believe that our job is to understand the person with learning difficulties and find solutions to help him overcome those difficulties. The name is useful only when it throws light on the difficulties at hand so that they are arrested and the person is helped.

In Malaysia, "learning difficulties", "masalah pembelajaran" is the name given by the Special Education Unit of the Ministry of Education, for the people who were formely known as the "mentally handicapped", "terencat akal". This name was formally adopted after the Ministry recognizes that the "mentally handicapped" can be educated as well. It should be seen as a progress from the old terminology whose use of the word "mental" often gives the impression of the person as suffering from mental illness. The name, learning difficulties, rightly indicates that the person's difficulty is in learning and that he needs to be taught.

So here, in describing the difficulties of the people we have in mind, I shall refer to them as people with learning difficulties.

World Health Organisation (WHO) identifies people with learning difficulties in two aspects. From a teacher's point of view where appropriate help strategy is the top priority, I shall put simply those two aspects in the light of the actual difficulties faced by the person with learning difficulties.

1. Problem in learning skills

This means that the person with learning difficulties has difficulties learning one or more of the following areas of skills considered important for all people.

The skills of communication (speaking, following directions)
The skills of self-care (dressing, bathing)
The skills of decision-making (knows what to do and when)
The skills of academics (reading, writing, numbers)
The skills of work (disciplines of work)
The skills of personal safety (personal safety measures)

There are more skills that a person needs to know and the above are the essential ones that a person with learning difficulties has problems learning.

2. Problem in adapting behaviour (Social Problem)

This means that the person has difficulties adapting to the happenings in the environment which he encounters.

The skill of understanding the behaviours of others
The skill of determining own appropriate social responses
The skill of changing own behaviour to suit the changing environment

For the sake of service provision, WHO insists that the person must have problem in both these aspects before he can be called a person with learning difficulties. If he has problem in one aspect only he cannot be said to have learning difficulties. However, from experience, we find that having problem in one is likely to affect the other.

Perhaps to clarify the matter further as to who has learning difficulties and who has not we should refer to some common mix-up tendencies of people when identifying disabilities.

Mental Illness. This illness has often been attributed to people with learning difficulties as well. This may be because of the terminology we have used previously and also the fact that people are ignorant of the differences in the behaviours of the two problems.

Autism. There is always the tendency to regard people with autism as having learning difficulties and vice versa. This notion is because a number of people with learning difficulties have also autistic tendency. Although autistic people does not necessarily have learning difficulties, quite a number do have learning difficulties as well because the difficulties they face do not help in the learning of skills.

Cerebral Palsy. These people are quite often mistaken to be people with learning difficulties especially those who are severely physically handicapped. People with cerebral palsy often have difficulty in communicating which further confirms the presumption. Depending on the extent of the damage to the brain some people with cerebral palsy have also learning difficulties. With the right medication, the person can lead a normal life.

Epilepsy. People with this condition experience uncontrollable "electrical disturbance" in their brain cells. The fits or seizures that they have may cause the person to lose consciousness for a while. Severe and uncontrolled fits can result in the person having a brain damage and thus learning difficulties. With the right medication, the person can lead a normal life.

Physical Handicap. Those people who are severely physically disabled coupled with difficulties in speaking, such as those with advanced muscular dystrophy or people who had suffered from severe stroke, are often treated as though they have learning difficulties.

Sensory Handicap. People who are visually impaired or have hearing problem do not have learning difficulties. However, a small proportion of people with learning difficulties also are deaf and/or blind.

In summary, people with learning difficulties do need our understanding and help in making the appropriate provision for them. In doing this for them, their dignity and rights as persons must be preserved.

Lim Saw Giak
Former Director of SPD
Malaysian CARE