Scottish Economy

A new project on adults with learning disabilities in Scotland

At the Fraser of Allander, we’re delighted to be starting a new year-long research project examining the relationship between people with learning disabilities in Scotland and economic outcomes for them and their families.

As we’ve started to get into this work, it is patently clear that this is a severely under-researched area in Scottish economics and one that is overlooked too in mainstream economic policy discussions.

But this is puzzling.

As of 2019, there were 23,584 adults with a learning disability known to local authorities across Scotland. However, this figure is likely to be a huge underestimate. Indeed, one of the key challenges in understanding this research area is the lack of accurate data. Which almost makes this sector and the families involved ‘invisible’ in mainstream debates.

A 2015 study revealed that 4% of Scottish school pupils, approximately 27,000 individuals, have a learning disability1. Applying this to the population as a whole gives an estimate of 150,000 – 175,000 people with a learning disability in Scotland – a roughly similar size to the city of Dundee.

What is a Learning Disability?

The Scottish Government’s Keys to life strategy defines a learning disability as:

“A significant lifelong condition which is present prior to the age of eighteen and which has a significant effect on a person’s development.”

Whilst people with a learning disability “will need more support than their peers to understand information, learn skills and lead independent lives”, this does not mean they are incapable of playing an active role in our society and economy.

What do we know about people with learning disabilities?

As mentioned, there isn’t a lot of official information available that helps us understand the lives of people with learning disabilities.

The information that is available paints a sober picture.

Two statistics stand out. The first covers health and the second focuses on employment.

The life expectancy of people with learning disabilities is significantly lower than those without. This gap is estimated at 20 years. Many illnesses are preventable, but inaccessible healthcare acts as a barrier to living a healthy life for many people with learning disabilities.

The employment rate for adults with learning disabilities is also incredibly low, even in comparison with the disabled population. The employment rate across Scotland in pre-COVID times was comfortably above 70%. The employment rate for disabled people hovered around 45%. In comparison, the last estimate for people with learning disabilities – known to Local Authorities – was an employment rate of just 7%.

As Chart 1 shows, much of this employment is in the open labour market, with a relatively small share being supported into non-open employment (26%).

Chart 1: Employment type for people with learning disabilities in work

Graph showing employment type people learning disabilities Scotland

Source: SCLD, 2019

What do we hope to achieve?

Despite the prevalence of learning disabilities, we have been taken aback by how little the challenges people and their families face – as well as the opportunities available to them – is part of general economic discourse or economic policy debates. Supporting people with learning disabilities is rarely mentioned in party political manifestos or economic strategies of government. This is despite grand statements about wellbeing or inclusivity.

Budget cuts in recent years, particularly those at local government, have cut resources available to support families and funding of organisations supporting people into work. The support systems that do exist – notwithstanding some amazing work by charities, public sector workers and families themselves – can be complex and difficult to understand.

Overall, the limited visibility of this group appears to stem from a lack of understanding or willingness to recognise the challenges and barriers they face.

It also demonstrates little awareness of the potential that could be unlocked if barriers were overcome to give more choice on how to live, work and participate in Scotland’s society and economy.

We want to help change perceptions and facilitate more discussion about the lives of people with learning disabilities. We want to establish more facts and gain a deeper understanding of the issues facing this group. This can be used to aid evidence-based policy making that can make change possible.

Looking ahead

This research project will cover a broad range of issues affecting the lives of adults with learning disabilities. Alongside our own research and modelling, we’ll be learning directly from both individuals and families to gain an insight into their real-world experiences. We will also consult key stakeholders and research public attitudes. We’ll be working with some great organisations who conduct research into the lives of people with learning disabilities. We hope to add to their work with our economics and budget focus.

The programme of research will encompass a number of subjects that will be driven by our initial findings. However, some issues are already emerging and will be included in the project – employment, health and wellbeing, the design of government policy, and the impact on families and carers.

Look out for our first report in the next week and stay tuned for our podcasts and webinars.



1 – Note that this figure will include some people with an autism spectrum diagnosis but no associated learning disability.


Murray McLean

Murray worked with the Knowledge Exchange team at the Institute in 2020, while completing his MSc in Applied Economics at the University of Strathclyde. He is interested in environmental economics and work that has a real impact. He worked a project using IO modelling and conducted research on the economic outcomes for adults with learning disabilities in Scotland, focusing on financial analysis.

Knowledge Exchange Associate at the Fraser of Allander Institute

Emma is Deputy Director and Senior Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the Fraser of Allander Institute

Picture of Graeme Roy, director of the Fraser of Allander Institute
Graeme Roy

Dean of External Engagement in the College of Social Sciences at Glasgow University and previously director of the Fraser of Allander Institute.