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TX: 21.04.08 - Learning Disability


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Now what exactly is a learning disability? Well a learning disability is caused by the way the brain develops, usually before someone is born, and it is a lifelong condition. So, for example, someone with Down's Syndrome has a learning disability, while someone with dyslexia does not. Confused? Well it seems you're not alone.

MENCAP, the charity and campaign group for people with learning disability, surveyed more than a thousand people and more than a hundred MPs, only 3 out of 10 of them had any good idea what the term learning disability means. We asked the comedian Steve Day, who's deaf, for his thoughts.

It's not easy being an MP these days. You claim a mere £4,000 on food shopping and they have a go at you. Pay your family members to get drunk at university and there's an outcry. And to top it all they send people round doing surveys about stuff you should know about but don't. Take learning disabilities, for instance, out of 103 MPs asked by MENCAP to give three examples of a learning disability four managed to evade answering at all. Not easy when you've eaten four grand's worth from Waitrose, what a lunch that must have been. And of those who didn't manage to dodge the clipboard 76% gave completely the wrong answers. Almost half of those honourable members surveyed thought dyslexia was a learning disability, or perhaps they just misread the question. Nine percent said blindness - well yes they're always bumping into things, when will they ever learn? And 12% said deafness - big up for my homies but that's wrong. As were the sadly anonymous honourable members who gave tunnel vision and being colour blind as examples of learning disabilities.

Mine you asking the public the same question returned such classic answers as - bad parenting, Multiple Sclerosis and the classic "spastic", which should win a prize for managing to be so very wrong on every conceivable level. Special praise too has to go to the respondents who suggested being foreign counted or at least foreign and not having command of the English language.

Does it matter? Should we really be bothering our elected representatives with all this when they've got better things to do ordering stuff from the John Lewis catalogue? Well 1.5 million people in the UK have a learning disability - 1.5 million! Imagine the populations of Birmingham and Manchester put together - if you can. It isn't just a matter of getting the words wrong or a fear of using outdated and offensive terms like mentally handicapped or believe it or not mong or getting it confused with mental illness, which is nuts. It's how we treat our fellow human beings but the problem is partly what I've come to see as a disability panic. I can't count the number of times I've been consoled about my deafness by people saying how all the free parking must come in handy.

So come on guys, come on MPs, it's not that hard surely to know that a learning disability is not about being deaf, not about being blind or even being French, nor is it really too much to ask that people be allowed to get on with their lives without being called names. To be allowed to go shopping or enjoy some of the nicer things in life without hindrance. Ask an MP.

The comedian Steve Day, pretty cross about the confusion but is he right to be?

Well David Congdon is head of policy and campaigns at MENCAP, that organised the survey.

David, you're on a mobile phone because I know you had problems with your transport in getting into the studio, but if people don't know what a learning disability is couldn't your own big wealthy organisation be said to have failed?

Well we try very hard to get the message across about learning disability and that's why we've changed our logo and trying to put even greater emphasis on the voice of people with a learning disability to try to get across to the public, as well as politicians, what a learning disability is and why it's very, very important to ensure they all get a fair deal in our society.

Well the confusion seems to be, doesn't it, between learning disability, which as we've explained covers a lifelong disability caused by the way the brain has developed and learning difficulty, which can be applied to any problem really that hampers learning, so anything from disruptive behaviour to dyslexia.

That's right and it's one of the reasons why we use the term learning disability to try to avoid that confusion. The confusion, the way it comes about, because in the education field the term learning difficulty is used to describe a whole wide variety of different things including dyslexia, which of course is not a learning disability. So we keep trying to make it absolutely clear what a learning disability is and are campaigning very, very strongly for people with learning disabilities to have the same rights and opportunities as everybody else.

Well Steve Day, we've just heard, thinks that the politically correct language, you know the language that we use because we don't want to cause offence, can't be blamed for this. But isn't the fact that two very similar terms have caused confusion?

I think the terms do cause confusion, it's why some people prefer the term intellectual disability but the crucial issue is less about the term than the recognition that people with a learning disability do have the - should have the same rights as everybody else to be equal citizens rather than treated as second class citizens. That's the key message we're wanting to get across, to try to avoid that confusion and to get across to people - the public in general and politicians - that too often people with a learning disability aren't given those same chances and opportunities in life as everybody else and that's wrong and got to change.

David Congdon from MENCAP thank you.

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