This week we touch upon the interesting topic of ‘learning disabilities’, something which not a lot of people consider seriously, making it a stigma-filled and controversial topic, especially within Muslim communities.
Learning disabilities are often misunderstood and simplified to being ‘dumb’, ‘slow’ and ‘not quick on the uptake’ in all or some areas of life.
People can often find the term ‘learning disability’ confusing because there are several different explanations about what a learning disability is. Learning disability and learning difficulties are terms that are commonly used in the UK. In other English speaking countries the term ‘intellectual disability’ is used also.
An intellectual disability, ranging from mild, moderate to severe, is defined as a significant impairment in intellectual functioning and socially adaptive behaviour, which has an onset before adulthood (WHO, 1990) furthermore it can impact upon everyday activities – for example household tasks, socialising or managing money – which affects someone for their whole life.
Between 25 and 40% of people with learning disabilities also experience mental health problems. Unlike learning disability, mental health problems can affect anyone at any time and may be overcome with treatment.
A major barrier to diagnosing mental health problems in people with a learning disability is that symptoms shown by someone with a learning disability might be seen as behaviour related to their learning disability instead of the mental health problem.
Another reason is that mental health and learning disability services are often separate, and do not always work together. This means that assessment measures to detect mental health problems in people with a learning disability are not always well developed.
Additionally, for children and young people, the prevalence rate of a diagnosable psychiatric disorder is 36% in children and adolescents with learning disabilities, compared with 8% of those who did not have a learning disability. These young people were also 33 times more likely to be on the autistic spectrum and were much more likely than others to have emotional and conduct disorders (Mental Health Foundation).
Children and adults with learning disabilities as well as their families, have to deal with exceptional levels of prejudice and discrimination throughout their lives, especially by their surrounding community. Such individuals are frequently victims of challenges such as aggressive abuse, hostility, humiliation, conflict, teasing and stares (Werner et al, 2012). There are statistically significant age and gender related attitudinal differences, with women and younger adults generally voicing more favourable attitudes than men and older adults. (Goreczny et al, 2011).
Those with learning disabilities are not seen as an individual but merely for their ‘brains’ or apparent lack thereof, with research finding that people with intellectual disabilities are seen as separate from the self (Siperstein et al, 2011).
This can bring about feelings of isolation to the individual and their families as learning disabilities, especially in the BME where it can be seen as something curable when in fact they have no known ‘cure’. Not only does it give false hope, it fails to take into account the issue itself so that individuals are not given the correct social and developmental support specific to their disability to lead independent and healthy lives.
Many don’t realise it is not attention-seeking or excuses when it comes to learning disabilities but it is a very real thing that needs to be addressed in society. Studies have suggested that overall in the 21st century the public hold low expectations for their role in society (Siperstei et al, 2003).
On a positive note, attitudes towards people have changed over time in response to cultural, economic and social shifts (Digby & Wright, 1996). The increasing awareness of human rights and integration, enabling greater visibility of people may have aided in this shift of attitudes (Kersh, 2011).
During the time of the Prophet ﷺ, many of the Sahāba (radiallāhu ‘anhum) suffered from a range of disabilities e.g. ‘Abdullāh b. Ummi Maktūm (radiallāhu ‘anhu) was blind, ‘Amr b. Jamūh (radiallāhu ‘anhu) suffered from a severe limp and Julaybīb (radiallāhu ‘anhu) was described as being deformed. Unlike what we may see in the Muslim community today, they were not shunned away or abused from the community. Instead, the Prophet ﷺ made every effort to accommodate and make them feel a part of the Ummah, did not underestimate their abilities, and gave them vital roles within the community.
It’s time we unlearn what we may think we know about learning disabilities and actually re-learn a few things so that we can become more open-minded in order to support people experiencing learning disabilities.
Do you or anyone you know have a learning disability? What has your experience been like?