Learning disabilities is a term used to describe people who are unable to process information as quickly as others, take longer to develop new skills and understand complex information, and may find it difficult to interact with other people.
It is estimated that 2% of the population in England have a learning disability (British Institute for Learning Disabilities). Some people prefer the term learning difficulties, although this also refers to specific difficulties such as dyslexia.
Provision for those with learning disabilities tends to be discrete and focussed on vocational qualifications and functional skills (English, Maths and ICT). It is useful for practitioners to understand the expected level of attainment for adult numeracy and literacy.
The term covers a wide range of abilities, and the level of support that someone needs depends on factors including the severity of their learning disability. A person with a mild learning disability may be able to live independently and only need support with things like managing their finances or getting a job. However someone with a severe or profound learning disability could need full-time care and support with every aspect of daily living.
Some people with severe or profound learning disabilities may have additional difficulties such as physical or sensory impairment. Learning disabilities may be part of other conditions such as autistic spectrum disorder or Down’s syndrome among many others.
What organisations can do
There is a legal obligation for organisations to ensure that no-one is disadvantaged because of a disability. Organisations must make reasonable anticipatory adjustments to ensure as many people as possible can access their materials and services.
The structure of the curriculum and timetable needs to acknowledge students' abilities and vulnerabilities. In some cases discrete provision is delivered within one section of the organisation. This may result in the learners feeling excluded from the organisation's general atmosphere and culture.
Signage needs to be clear with symbols in relevant areas if necessary and should be tested with a range of disabled students to check their usability and appropriateness. If symbols are used for signage and as part of the curriculum, there needs to be a single set used across the organisation for consistency. The virtual learning environment (VLE) could also be accessed by symbol navigation.
Some courses may not have an accredited qualifications associated with its completion. These may be independent living or pre-vocational courses that are personalised for each individual student. In these cases it is recommended, and is a requirement for study programmes, that the organisation uses the Recognising and Recording Progress and Achievement (RARPA) framework for supporting learners' progression and creating personalised objectives that can be reported on and tracked.
If RARPA is required and necessary for the type of course being offered, there needs to be a process and tools in place to record data on achievement. Learners with learning disabilities need tasks breaking down into their constituent parts with achievement occurring in very small steps.
The majority of organisational data management tools do not have the ability or capacity to track the detail of these achievements. Using mobile or tablet devices will allow students to access rich content, or use it to record evidence in the form of audio, photos or video.
What tutors and teachers can do
When teaching those with learning difficulties there are a few general rules to follow:
- Make learning participative
- Encourage peer learning
- Break tasks down into smaller steps that will incrementally build into the task objective
- Use learners’ own words, language, materials and personal context - be clear about activity purpose and how it relates to the skills needs of the learner
- Make both written and spoken information clear use unambiguous terms and follow plain English guidelines
- Be aware of your own attitudes and views and how they can unintentionally influence learners
- Observe what works for a particular learner and what does not
- Work through any emotional issues that create a barrier before learning can take place
- If you are working with learners who are also from a different minority ethnic group, remember that their ethnicity is an important aspect of their identity
- Avoid being too directive – some people with learning disabilities may say what they think you want to hear
- Be aware of the language you use and of that used by other members of the group including non verbal communication; be prepared to change if you think it is appropriate
- Encourage learners to ask for help - show that this is acceptable and is not a sign of failure
- Listen closely to what learners say; always respond to the content of what someone is saying and do not be misled by the style of delivery.
Encouraging learners to be creative will engage and enable them to expand their ideas and thinking. Collaborative working with their peers, and teaching and support staff, will enable them to demonstrate and build on their skills, experience and achievements.
Many adults with learning disabilities like using technology and enjoy coaching or mentoring others to do the same. Technology is inherently enabling and learners with relatively low traditional literacy levels can use digital resources at a higher level than anticipated to achieve their own outcomes.
Bring your own device
Enabling learners to use their own devices ensures that they can communicate, work and learn in their preferred way. The necessary infrastructure and both technical and acceptable user policies need to be in place to enable this to happen. If this is not possible, a device borrowed from the organisation may be helpful.
If a learner uses their own device, ensure they are familiar with any collaborative applications you are planning to use. Finding the right type of software or app is important so that learners gain confidence to actively participate in lessons.
They can be used for discussions, planning or providing information in a wide variety of formats. Learners can provide their own input as a group and the results can be saved onto the virtual learning environment (VLE). Being able to access the session at a later date and time is helpful to consolidate and reinforce the information.
Involving learners in decision making about the use of technology and resources is a powerful way to increase their knowledge and confidence. There are a number of solutions that should be available across the organisation. Encourage your learners to have a copy of their favourite applications on a USB stick that they can then use at home, or in a work placement.
Reading and writing support
Many learners with learning disabilities need support with reading, writing or comprehension. Ensuring that text-to-speech options are available throughout the organisation means that any learner can listen to text on a computer rather than struggle to read and/or understand it.
Text-to-speech options include:
- Clipspeak and Orato for browsing which will read aloud any text copied to the clipboard
- There is a read aloud option in both Microsoft Word and Adobe Reader
- Free software applications like Balabolka and DSpeech can convert text into MP3 files
- DiCom - a text prediction application which can assist learners with writing.
This is a useful way to clarify thinking, plan and organise a piece of written work. Having content displayed in a visual way means that the user can move their ideas around, reorder them, and add notes and additional branches. This can then be exported as text and used as a basis for further writing.