Intellectual Disability (I.D.)

What is Intellectual Disability (I.D.)?

    According to the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities, Intellectual Disability (which also known as cognitive disabilities and mental retardation) is used to portray individuals with certain mental functioning limitations.  These individuals have trouble communicating, being independent, and developing social and practical skills.  In childhood, these limitations cause learning and developmental growth to be slower than the non disabled children.  Because this disability may cause delays in speech, walking, and personal care, children with an intellectual disabilities may take longer to learn some concepts in the classroom. 

    Recently it has been discovered that people with intellectual disabilities can improve, and according to Daniel Hallahan, they can "eventually improve to the point at which they are no longer classified as intellectually disabled."  This is related to the amount of support the child receives from teachers, professionals, counselors and psychologist.  There are four levels of support intellectually disabled children may need, which are:
  • intermittent: which is support given on a as-needed basis
  • limited: which is support given consistently over time
  • extensive: is support given regularly over a long time period.
  • pervasive: is high-intensity support given across environments, such as home and school.


Definition of “Intellectual Disability” under IDEA

Until Rosa’s Law was signed into law by President Obama in October 2010, IDEA used the term “mental retardation” instead of “intellectual disability.” Rosa’s Law changed the term to be used in future to “intellectual disability.” The definition itself, however, did not change. Accordingly, “intellectual disability” is defined as…

“…significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.” [34 CFR §300.8(c)(6)]


What are the characteristics?

    Children with intellectual disabilities can be characterized by many things.  For example, a child with I.D. may exhibit some of the following:
  • Trouble speaking
  • May have trouble with recall
  • Trouble understanding how things work                    
  • Not being able to understand social rules
  • Not being able to see the consequences of their actions
  • Trouble solving problems and
  • Thinking logically
    There are four classifications of intellectually disabled, they are based on the American Psychological Association's classifications.  They are "mild (IQ of about 50 to 70), moderate (IQ of about 35-40), severe (IQ of about 20-35), and profound (IQ below 20)" (Hallahan, 2009).

What is the prevalence?
     An intellectual disability is the most common disability defined under IDEA.  In fact, NICHCY estimates that "more 545,000 children (ages 6-21) have some level of intellectual disability and receive special education services in the public school."  That is 1 out of every 10 students, which is roughly 1% of the American population is classified as being intellectually disabled.

What are some instructional considerations?
   When considering the educational needs of intellectually disabled students it is important to remember that these students will likely need individualized help from the general education teacher, as well as special education and related services.  These services are made available to these students for free under IDEA.

In order to receive these services the student needs to have an IEP (Individualized Educational Plan), which details their specific needs.  In order to initiate an IEP for your child contact your local school system.

    Depending on the degree of the disability it is very important that the intellectually disabled student be heavily involved in their education, and that they are supported by their schools educators and staff.  This is especially true in the general education classroom.  It should also be noted that under IDEA it is not acceptable for a student to removed from a general education class for the sole reason of their need for modifications.  Instead "supplementary aids and services," as detailed by IDEA, should be utilized to ensure that all students are being educated to the highest degree appropriate..  All aids and services should be outlined in the students IEP plan.

    Modifications should focus on creating adaptive skills and transition services as they move into the adult world.  This is also known as functional academics.  Some adaptive skills include: communicating with others, healthy and safety needs, social skills, and basic reading, writing, and math. (NICHY). 

    Instructional strategies may used are systematic instruction and instruction in real-life setting with real materials.  Systematic instruction is the use of prompts, rewards and consequences, and strategies for stimulus control.  Reality based instruction, or functional academics, is most successful when taught in the actual setting they are used.  

For more information and teacher tips go to and