Despite there being over 1.5 million people with a learning disability in the UK, there is still a lack of understanding of what the term means, according to a new survey from Mencap.

The results revealed that two thirds of people cannot correctly identify a learning disability as a reduced intellectual ability with 40% thinking it is dyslexia and 28% believing it relates to a mental health issue.

The charity says that some of the reasons for the lack of understanding could include low visibility and representation in the media. The survey reveals that 42% of those surveyed have not seen someone with a learning disability in the media in the past year.

Minimal contact with people with a learning disability in society may also contribute to the lack of understanding around the needs of people with a learning disability, as well as some people’s negative attitudes. Almost a fifth (18%) of people say they have never spoken to someone with a learning disability - or not since they were at school – and over a quarter (27%) agree they would feel apprehensive about talking to someone with a learning disability for the first time.  

As well as a lack of understanding, the figures reveal over six in 10 of adults (64%) have witnessed someone be rude to or about a person with a learning disability at some point in their lifetime. Almost a third (31%) also admitted they themselves have engaged in offensive or disrespectful behaviour at some point, such as telling a joke, doing an impression of someone with a learning disability, or ignoring someone. 

Talk to me campaign

To celebrate the charity’s 75th anniversary – and highlight the need for greater progression, understanding and inclusion of people with a learning disability - Mencap is launching its ‘Talk To Me’ campaign.

The campaign provides a set of tools available to access online, which will help with people’s lack of understanding of learning disability. Included in these online resources is a pledge that the charity is encouraging people to sign to stand up for the rights of people with a learning disability; a video from people with a learning disability about what their learning disability means to them; a guide about communicating with people with a learning disability and a quiz to test people’s knowledge of learning disability.  

Edel Harris, Chief Executive, said: “For 75 years, Mencap has campaigned with people with a learning disability, their families and carers to create positive change. We have seen huge progress but we know there is still a long way to go, and it’s clear from these new statistics just how many misconceptions still exist.

"People with a learning disability can and should be active participants in society, yet many people don’t know what a learning disability is or have little contact with people with a learning disability. We are encouraging people to educate themselves about learning disability through our ‘Talk To Me’ resources online. 

“We want the UK to be the best place in the world for people with a learning disability to live happy and healthy lives. Mencap began in a time when the world was completely different for people with a learning disability and we have seen a lot of progress in society’s attitudes and behaviours since then – but we still need to see even bigger change.” 

Improving media representation of learning disability

The survey results show just how much of an impact the media can make, with a third (33%) saying they would feel more comfortable talking to someone with a learning disability if they saw them featured more often in the media.

Mencaps says shows such as Line of Duty - featuring Tommy Jessop who has Down’s syndrome – and Mencap ambassador George Webster who recently made history when he became the first CBeebies presenter who has Down’s syndrome, are helping, but  more is needed.

George Webster said: “When I was younger, there wasn’t anyone with a learning disability or Down's Syndrome on the TV. It is so important though - if people saw more people with a learning disability in the media, they would better understand what a learning disability is and they would be less scared to approach someone and talk to them. Then they could get to know them better. This would also mean people treat us better - it could improve things massively. 

“I've been over the moon with all the positive feedback since I joined CBeebies and I've been feeling super proud, especially when people say it means a lot to them. I think it will help people understand more about Down's Syndrome and learning disability as they can learn more about me and see that we're not that different. 

“I just want everyone to treat people with a learning disability fairly and to not judge us - talk to us and get to know us before assuming anything.” 

Anxiety when talking to someone with a learning disability

The survey also revealed there are signs the public have an appetite to learn more about learning disability. Anxieties about how to adjust the way they speak are causing 40% of adults to feel uncomfortable about talking to someone with a learning disability.  

Saskia, who has a learning disability, said: “I think everyone should understand more about learning disability. For me, things have been so much better since I’ve become a football coach. It has helped people in my community get to know me, learn about what people with a learning disability are capable of and made me feel so much more confident in the rest of my life also.  

“Everyone with a learning disability should be included and people should not worry about language – just be kind and use normal language. I just want to talk to people like anyone else and if you just talk to us and get to know us, you’ll see just how much we can do.”  

*The survey was conducted by Opinion Matters and surveyed 2,001 nationally representative UK adults between 01.10.2021 – 05.10.2021.