A Primer on Intellectual / Cognitive and Developmental Disabilities

Intellectual or cognitive disabilities have been traditionally referred to as mental retardation. This latter term is now offensive to many […]

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Intellectual or cognitive disabilities have been traditionally referred to as mental retardation. This latter term is now offensive to many people, and the term “mental retardation” is no longer used by organizations such as The Arc, the largest organization in the U.S. advocating for and supporting those with intellectual disabilities.

Depending on the criteria used for counting purposes, an estimated 1 – 3% of the United States population is considered to have intellectual disabilities. This works out to between 2.5 – 7.5 million people. Intellectual disability cuts across the lines of racial, ethnic, educational, social, and economic backgrounds. It can occur in any family.

The official definition of intellectual disability is a condition in which: (1) the person’s intellectual functioning level (IQ) is below 70-75; (2) the person has significant limitations in adaptive skill areas such as conceptual, social, and practical adaptive skills; and (3) the disability originated before the age of 18. “Adaptive skill areas” refers to basic skills needed for everyday life. They include communication, self-care, home living, social skills, leisure, health and safety, self-direction, functional academics (reading, writing, basic math), and work.

Intellectual disabilities will vary in degree person to person, just as individual capabilities vary considerably among people who do not have an intellectual disability. People should not make generalizations about the needs of persons with intellectual disabilities. Persons who have intellectual disabilities may or may not have other impairments as well. Examples of coexisting conditions may include: cerebral palsy, seizure disorders, vision impairment, hearing loss, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Persons with severe intellectual disabilities are more likely to have additional limitations than persons with milder intellectual disabilities.

The effects of an intellectual disability vary considerably among people who have them. Children may take longer to learn to speak, walk, and take care of their personal needs, such as dressing or eating. People may take longer learning in school. As adults, many people will be able to lead independent lives in the community without paid supports. A small percentage will have serious, lifelong limitations in functioning. However, with early intervention, an appropriate education, and supports as an adult, all can lead satisfying lives in the community.

Supports include the resources and individual strategies needed to promote a person’s development, education, interests, and well-being. Supports enhance the individual capabilities and functioning. These supports can come from individuals in a person’s life, such as a parent, sibling, friend, teacher, or a co-worker who provides a little extra support at a job setting. They can also come from a service system or school setting.

Persons with intellectual disabilities successfully perform a wide range of jobs, and can be dependable workers. The types of jobs people with intellectual disabilities are able to perform will depend on individual strengths and interests.

Many employers still exclude persons with intellectual disabilities from the workplace because of persistent, but unfounded myths, fears, and stereotypes. For instance, some employers believe that workers with intellectual disabilities will have a higher absentee rate than employees without disabilities. Studies show that this is not true and that workers with intellectual disabilities are absent no more than other workers. Another popular misperception is that employing people with intellectual disabilities will cause insurance costs to skyrocket. Studies show, however, that employing workers with intellectual disabilities will not lead to higher insurance rates or more workers’ compensation claims.

Intellectual disabilities and developmental disabilities are often used interchangeably. However, they are not quite the same. An intellectual disability is one type of developmental disability, but not all developmental disabilities have an intellectual component.

The federal government’s definition of developmental disability is a condition which:

• Is severe and chronic and likely to continue indefinitely;

• Is attributable to a mental or physical impairment or a combination of those impairments;

• Occurs before the age of 22;

• Results in substantial functional limitations in three or more of the following areas of major life activity: self-care, receptive and expressive language, learning, mobility, self-direction, capacity for independent living, and economic self-sufficiency;

• Shows a need for special, interdisciplinary supports for the individual or other forms of lifelong or extended assistance.

In addition to intellectual disabilities, examples of developmental disabilities include cerebral palsy, epilepsy, developmental delay, autism, and fetal alcohol syndrome.

For more information about cognitive/intellectual disabilities, about developmental disabilities, and about funding and supports available for persons with these disabilities, contact The Arc of Minnesota, 651-523-0823 or 1-800-582-5256; website: www.TheArcOfMinnesota.org; e-mail: [email protected].

Information for this article was taken directly from fact sheets produced by The Arc of the U.S. and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Go to www.thearc.org/faqs/intromr.pdf and www.eeoc.gov/facts/intellectual_disabilities.html for the complete articles.

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Mental Wellness