An intellectual disability is a significant limitation in a student’s cognitive functioning and daily adaptive behaviours (Schalock & Luckasson, 2004; American Association on Mental Retardation, 2002). The student may have limited language or impaired speech and may not perform well academically.
Compared to students with learning disabilities, students with intellectual disabilities have impairments to learning that are broader and more significant:
• They score poorly on standardised tests of intelligence.
• Everyday tasks that most people take for granted, like getting dressed or eating a meal may be possible, but they may also take more time and effort than usual.
• Health and safety can sometimes be a concern, e.g. knowing whether it is safe to cross a street.
• For older individuals, finding and keeping a job may require help from supportive others.
The exact combination of challenges varies from one person to another, but it always (by definition) involves limitations in both intellectual and daily functioning.
There are many terms used to describe students with intellectual disabilities. If the disability is mild, teachers sometimes refer to a student with the disability simply as a slow learner, particularly if the student has no formal, special supports for the disability, e.g. a teaching assistant. If the disability is more marked, then the student is more likely to be referred to either as having an intellectual disability or as having mental retardation.
In this course the term intellectual disability is used, because it has fewer negative connotations while still describing one key educational aspect of the disability, cognitive impairment.
Levels of support for individuals with intellectual disabilities
Intellectual disabilities happen in different degrees or amounts, though most often are relatively mild. Traditionally the intensity or ‘amount’ of the disability was defined by scores on a standardised test of scholastic aptitude (or ‘IQ test’), with lower scores indicating more severe disability.
Due to the insensitivity of such tests to individuals’ daily social functioning, however, current trends are toward defining intensities by the amount of support needed by the individual. Levels of support range from intermittent (just occasional or ‘as needed’ for specific activities) to pervasive (continuous in all realms of living).
The intellectual disabilities that a classroom teacher is most likely to see are the ones requiring the least support in the classroom. A student requiring only intermittent support may require special help with some learning activities or classroom routines, but not others.
A student might need help with reading or putting on winter clothes but primarily on occasions when there is pressure to do these things relatively quickly.
Students requiring somewhat more support are likely to spend less time in the mainstream classroom and more time receiving special help from other professionals, e.g. a special education teacher or a speech and language specialist. These circumstances have distinct implications for ways of teaching these students.