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Bridging the Gap between Needs and Care for People with Learning Disabilities

Unlike many years ago, people living with learning disabilities have numerous support systems and health services today. Governments and several non-profit and profit organizations have developed many policies and initiatives to improve mental health services. Yet, there is still an immense gap between ideal services and what patients and people with such disabilities experience. This experience is significant today because there are better data models to indicate the prevalence of these disabilities. As the number of people living with learning disabilities and mental health problems continues to rise, there must be unanimity between their needs and the kind of services they access. The governments and organizations responsible for caring for these people from childhood to old age must be willing to rethink these initiatives and policies to protect and support their development socially, economically, and emotionally. This paper examines the encounters of children, adolescents, and the elderly living with learning disabilities, in getting the necessary support and health services. It also proposes recommendations to addressing these challenges.

Challenges for Children and Adolescents with Learning Disabilities

Difficulty Accessing Services

Several studies indicate that children and adolescents living with learning disabilities may not be getting the services they need. For instance, according to Jacobs et al. (2015), most parents seeking these services for their children do not get them, and if they do, their needs are unmet. Additionally, a study conducted in Germany found that out of 100 parents with children with a range of disabilities, including those suffering from learning disabilities, about 22 of them needed advice on behavioral problems but did not find it. Unsurprisingly, these unmet social needs get worsened by secondary factors such as social disruptions, lack of finances, and concerns for the children. Other factors play a role in hindering access to service. For example, children with developmental problems have the most difficulty accessing services in almost all countries. Additionally, places with minority groups have the lowest records regarding the accessibility of these services either because of cultural inappropriateness of the service itself or language barrier with providers and other key stakeholders. Generally, these challenges associated with accessing services can get summarized into three types; structural barriers, barriers related to perceptions of the disability, and views about the service.

Undesirable Experiences of Services

Mental health services must be specific to the needs of the patients or consumers. These services must eliminate all factors that may discourage them or create a negative perception. Structural constraints, for instance, can contribute significantly to unpleasant experiences. They include the lack of awareness of what a parent needs to do once they realize their child has learning disabilities. Usually, they need to know where to start, who to talk to, and what they might need in the entire process of getting help for their children. Yet, this is not the case in most countries. Those tasked with meeting the needs of children and adolescents with learning disabilities usually lack the required resources and inpatient specialist services. It is a challenge because the admission may usually be a long distance from the family. According to Jacobs et al. (2015), stigma and shame associated with learning disabilities create more difficulty for parents to seek help for their kids. It can arise from perceptions created about mental health services. If a parent asks for help, they expect their request to be considered significant. Otherwise, it leads to a feeling of guilt and blame for getting labeled as neurotic. Ultimately, a positive experience by a parent seeking help for a child with a learning disability is a key in creating awareness by showing support.

When parents see the service offered as either inadequate or inappropriate for their children’s needs, they are likely to consider it desultory. This situation can result from having numerous health services misaligned with the patients’ needs. These put extra strain on young people (children and adolescents) with learning disabilities. For instance, in a study of 66 parents of children with learning disabilities, 24 parents said that none of the psychological advice or treatment offered to their children was helpful (Jacobs et al., 2015). If services are futile, it becomes an even critical challenge when young people transition from adolescence to adulthood. The transition period is one of heightened risk for mental problems and requires specialist mental health services. If these services cannot live up to the parents’ and patients’ expectations, they are left helpless, and the possibility of getting disengaged from providers increases. Parents are encouraged to fashion an apt relationship with their children instead of relying on providers.

Attachment Relationships with Fathers, Mothers, and Teachers

Studies have shown that the caregiver-adolescent relationship has a significant impact on personality and socioemotional development. The difficulties children living with learning disabilities are likely to experience beyond academic dysfunction include peer rejection, loneliness, and more withdrawal behaviors. For the unprepared and emotionally unfit children and adolescents, the parents must offer quality childcare. Their support is vital because they are first-line caregivers, and their input can influence the child’s internalizing and externalizing problems. Most children and adolescents with learning disabilities have not been offered this kind of support by their parents. For instance, previous studies have indicated that most fathers do not provide the required attachment for their children comparative to the mothers. This case applies to the teachers’ relationship with children and adolescents. Notably, younger children with disabilities are vulnerable to negative close relationships with their teachers. As children transition to adulthood and aspire to remain helpful people in society for many years, parents must strengthen their attachments and align their relationships to the needs of their children.

Challenges for Old People with Learning Disabilities

The active aging policy excludes the needs and perspectives of the elderly with learning disabilities. The active aging policy has received the support of various organizations, including the World Health Organization and governments globally. This policy and associated initiatives aim to encourage economic participation of the elderly by postponing some services, such as retirement benefits, insurance for the elderly, and others. Justifiably, such policies can create a more inclusive strategy for aging, yet, they have given prominence to productivity. According to Foster and Boxall (2015), active aging excludes “those not in paid employment, and the valuable contributions they make risk being ignored, reducing the discourse to its precursor ‘productive ageing’” (p. 272). Most of the elderly living with learning disabilities cannot contribute economically, and if so, not in the same magnitude as the healthy population. Postponement of benefits accorded by governments to the elderly to encourage them to work for more years, for instance, creates more barriers for those that are not part of the labor force. It makes their efforts to seek help harder and increases the significance of challenges associated with the condition. These policy implications are evident in how the elderly get treated in most societies. For example, they find it challenging to fulfill their aspirations because of a lack of appropriate support or because of the controlling nature of others. It is vital to include the experiences and perspectives of the elderly in active aging policies and related initiatives.


Attachment with caregivers plays a central role in aiding children and adolescents with learning disabilities. Parents should establish a secure base for their children through collaborative parenting and a better understanding of the role of conflict in the lives of adolescents and by dealing with the need for more autonomy among the youngsters. As described by Al-Yagon (2012), the relationship between a father and an adolescent living with learning disabilities is vital. Fathers should increase paternal levels, availability, and support to serve as a secure base and strengthen the overall support received from both parents. Schools should also provide an authoritative teaching style that involves praise and feedback to improve the relationships between adolescents and their teachers. Subsequently, professionals who develop school programs should focus on those that eliminate socioemotional and behavioral problems.

The challenge of communication to parents and people with learning disabilities emanates mainly from the fragmentation and complexity of services. When people seek these services, their overwhelming number becomes confusing and problematic. Parents of children with learning disabilities deserve more clear pathways towards getting the necessary support. Parents possess vital knowledge and skills regarding their children’s disabilities that can smoothen the process and improve the quality of care. Hence, there is a need to strengthen the partnerships between parents and service providers. Understanding parents’ needs and their perspectives can promote the creation of services that are appropriate for everyone. Ultimately, the government must ensure sufficient resources for people living with these disabilities, including the elderly.

Most of the challenges associated with the elderly living with learning disabilities stem from their lack of inclusion in active aging policies. Judging them based on the same scale as the general population is unfair and unethical. It is the reason why most elderly with learning disabilities have gotten less involved in mainstream society. Therefore, there is a need to acknowledge their existence in mainstream social policy by considering their needs and interests, listening to their perspective, and providing what they truly deserve. The top-down generalities with the active aging policy that puts everyone in the same bracket must get eliminated. The focus should be on the specifics of both negative and positive aspects of the lives of old people with learning disabilities instead of relying upon the ‘expert’ perspective. It is the people that are in a better position to determine what would best work for them.


The world has become more sensitive to factors that reduce the accessibility of mental health services to children, adolescents, and the elderly. Fathers and mothers must build better relationships with their children and be present to support and care for them. Teachers and schools must depend on unbiased programs that support the creation of a sense of secure base for children and adolescents in the specific school context.  The government and relevant organizations must provide the required resources and focus on unbiased policies against the less productive people in the economy. The elderly deserve inclusion in active aging policies because they are often assumed to fit in with the rest of the population, which is wrong. While encouraging participation of the elderly in building economies, it is necessary to consider the needs of those that cannot be as productive.


Al-Yagon, M. (2012). Adolescents with learning disabilities: Socioemotional and behavioral functioning and attachment relationships with fathers, mothers, and teachers. Journal of Youth and Adolescence41(10), 1294-1311. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-012-9767-6

Foster, L., & Boxall, K. (2015). People with learning disabilities and ‘active ageing’. British Journal of Learning Disabilities43(4), 270-276. https://doi.org/10.1111/bld.12144

Jacobs, M., Downie, H., Kidd, G., Fitzsimmons, L., Gibbs, S., & Melville, C. (2015). Mental health services for children and adolescents with learning disabilities: A review of research on experiences of service users and providers. British Journal of Learning Disabilities44(3), 225-232. https://doi.org/10.1111/bld.12141

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