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What’s the Difference Between Learning Disabilities and Intellectual Disabilities?

By Bob Cunningham

What’s the difference between a learning disability and an intellectual disability?

Bob Cunningham

Advisor-in-Residence, Understood

In the U.S. these terms have very different meanings. An intellectual disability describes below-average IQ and a lack of skills needed for daily living. This condition used to be called “mental retardation.”

A learning disability refers to weaknesses in certain academic skills. Reading, writing and math are the main ones.

Several causes need to be ruled out for a child to be identified with this type of disability. Her learning challenges can’t be caused by low intelligence. Problems with hearing or vision also need to be ruled out. The same goes for a lack of educational opportunity.

One way parents can get confused between the two is by searching online. That’s because the British call learning disabilities “learning difficulties.” And they call intellectual disabilities “learning disabilities.” (My advice? Make sure you know which side of the pond you’re surfing!)

Both types of disabilities affect learning. And both are covered by special education law. But they’re not the same thing. This is one of the most common misconceptions about learning disabilities in the U.S.

About the Author

Portrait of Bob Cunningham

Bob Cunningham serves as advisor-in-residence on learning and attention issues for Understood.

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