Understanding Intellectual Disabilities and Learning Disabilities: Unveiling the Differences

To Ability Together followers: This is a follow-up piece to this blog post, Embracing My Hidden Superpower: Living with a Learning Disability, about my Learning Disability.  Since so many people believe Intellectual Disability and Learning Disability are interchangeable, I’ve created an educational piece about the differences between the two. 

In the realm of neurodiversity, it’s essential to differentiate between intellectual disabilities (ID) and learning disabilities (LD) to provide proper support and inclusion for individuals who may face cognitive challenges. These terms are often used interchangeably, but they encompass distinct characteristics and implications. This blog post aims to shed light on what intellectual disabilities and learning disabilities are, and the key differences between them.

Intellectual Disabilities

Intellectual disability, previously known as mental retardation (shift began in 2010), is a developmental disorder characterized by limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior. These limitations manifest during the developmental period and significantly impact an individual’s ability to learn, communicate, and perform everyday tasks. 

Key Characteristics of Intellectual Disabilities

  • Intellectual Functioning: Individuals with intellectual disabilities have below-average intellectual functioning, typically measured by an intelligence quotient (IQ) below 70-75.
  • Adaptive Behavior: Adaptive behavior encompasses practical skills needed for daily living, such as communication, self-care, social skills, and safety awareness. Individuals with ID often struggle with these skills.
  • Onset in Development: Intellectual disabilities emerge during the developmental period, usually before the age of 18. 


Learning Disabilities (LD)

Learning disabilities refer to a group of disorders affecting a person’s ability to receive, process, store, and respond to information. Unlike intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities primarily impact specific academic skills while leaving other areas of intellectual functioning intact. 

Key Characteristics of Learning Disabilities

  • Specific Skill Impairment: Learning disabilities target specific areas such as reading, writing, mathematics, or language processing while other cognitive abilities remain unaffected.
  • Average to Above-Average Intellectual Functioning: Unlike intellectual disabilities, individuals with learning disabilities generally have average to above-average intellectual capabilities.
  • Neurobiological Basis: Learning disabilities are often rooted in neurobiological differences that affect how the brain processes information.



Understanding the distinction between intellectual disabilities and learning disabilities is crucial for providing appropriate support and interventions. While intellectual disabilities encompass a broader range of cognitive and adaptive challenges, learning disabilities target specific academic skills while leaving overall intellectual functioning intact. By recognizing and addressing these differences, we can work towards creating more inclusive environments that empower individuals to reach their full potential.

Remember, each person is unique, and a holistic approach to support should always be tailored to an individual’s needs and strengths.

Question for you

Did you know Learning Disability and Intellectual Disability are not interchangeable terms? Please share your story about living with LD or ID with us.


American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD). (2020). Intellectual Disability: Definition, Classification, and Systems of Support (11th ed.) Home (aaidd.org)

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Psychiatry.org – Home 

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). (n.d.). Learning Disabilities Information Page. Home | National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (nih.gov)

Rosa’s Law (United States, 2010): Public Law No: 111-256. (2010). Rosa’s Law. Congress.gov. Text – H.R.4247 – 111th Congress (2009-2010): Keeping All Students Safe Act | Congress.gov | Library of Congress

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