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Understanding mental capacity
Understanding mental capacity

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1 Capacity and people with learning disabilities

Assessing the mental capacity of people with learning disabilities can be problematic due to some people’s pre-conceptions that all learning disabilities require most decisions to be taken by others. However, people with a learning disability, even some with profound difficulties, are able to express preferences. Additional observational and listening skills, as well as extra time, is likely to be required for the mental capacity assessor.

Learning disability includes the presence of:

  • a significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information, to learn new skills (impaired intelligence), with;
  • a reduced ability to cope independently (impaired social functioning);
  • which started before adulthood, with a lasting effect on development. 
(Department of Health, 2001, p. 14)

Activity 1 Definitions of learning disability

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes

1. Watch the video below, which shows what ‘learning disability’ means to different people. It was produced by Mencap, a charity promoting awareness of and quality of life for people with a learning disability. At the end of the video, the viewer is asked, ‘What does learning disability mean to you?’ Write your own answer to this question in the text box below.

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What does learning disability mean?
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2. Mencap's mission is to ‘transform society’s attitudes to learning disability and improve the quality of life of people with a learning disability and their families’. Go to the Learning disability explained [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] page on the Mencap website and note at least five things about learning disabilities that you didn’t know and that may have surprised you. Write them in the text box below.

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You may have been surprised at the wide range of conditions and syndromes that are included under the heading of learning disability. The complexity of the processes for diagnosis may also have been surprising. Many learning disability conditions have features and behaviours that are common to other conditions. Some are very specific, may be genetic and can be confirmed with a blood test. Others, such as global developmental delay, may emerge more slowly through infancy and early childhood and can be much harder to identify in younger children.

A learning disability affects virtually all areas of a person’s life and has a substantial impact on their ability to function independently. A learning difficulty, while significant, does not have such a comprehensive impact. The Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities (2017) note that, ‘In general, a learning disability constitutes a condition which affects learning and intelligence across all areas of life, whereas a learning difficulty constitutes a condition which creates an obstacle to a specific form of learning, but does not affect the overall IQ of an individual. For example, Down’s syndrome is classed as a learning disability, whereas dyslexia is classed as a learning difficulty, in that it only affects an individual’s relationship to the processing of information, usually manifested in problems with reading, writing, and spelling.’

You may also have been surprised at the wide range of organisations and support services for people with learning disabilities. While there are many different types of conditions, a common feature is that people with learning disabilities and their carers continually face above average and often severe stress just to achieve a quality of life that many others take for granted. Learning disability is a life-long situation, requiring sustained and ongoing input.

Foundation for people with learning disabilities (2017), ‘What is the difference between a learning disability and a learning difficulty?’, Mental Health Foundation, learning-disabilities/ a-to-z/ l/ learning-disabilities (Accessed 14 January 2018).