This section draws heavily on MacDonald (2008, pp 10-12). Used with permission.

Throughout this book, we use the term ‘intellectual disability’, but it is important to understand that it is a term that is used to convey various meanings in various settings and is often used interchangeably with ‘learning disabilities’, ‘cognitive difficulties’ and ‘learning difficulties’. Each of these terms has a slightly different definition depending on the context.

The term ‘intellectual disability’ usually describes some degree of impairment of intellectual functioning, with the degree of disability ranging from borderline to profound intellectual impairment. An individual may have an intellectual disability alone, or may also have other disabilities, including a physical disability. An individual may or may not have a distinguishing physical appearance (NSWLRC, 1996).

‘Learning difficulties’ is a generic term that refers to people who exhibit problems in developmental and academic skills. These difficulties are considered to result from one or more of the following factors: intellectual disability, physical and sensory defects, emotional difficulties, inadequate environmental experiences, or lack of appropriate educational opportunities (NHMRC, 1990, p. 2).

Medical definitions

The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (formerly American Association on Mental Retardation) defines intellectual disability as:

Significantly sub-average intellectual functioning (that is, reasoning, memory, and other cognitive skills), existing concurrently with related limitations in two or more of the following applicable adaptive skill areas: communication, self-care, home living, social skills, community use, self-direction, health and safety, functional academics (basic literacy and numeracy), leisure and work. The condition arises prior to the age of 18.

The World Health Organisation, in the International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (WHO, 2007), defines intellectual disability (referred to as mental retardation) as:

A condition of arrested or incomplete development of the mind, which is especially characterized by impairment of skills manifested during the developmental period, skills which contribute to the overall level of intelligence, i.e. cognitive, language, motor, and social abilities.

The American Psychiatric Association, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th Edn) (APA, 2000), defines intellectual disability (referred to as mental retardation) as follows:

  • significantly sub-average intellectual functioning – an intelligence quotient (IQ) of approximately 70 or below;
  • concurrent deficits or impairments in adaptive functioning in at least 2 of the following areas: communication, self-care, home living, social/interpersonal skills, use of community resources, self-direction, functional academic skills, work, leisure, health, and safety;
  • onset before age 18 years.

Legal definitions

The Queensland Criminal Law Code 1899 (December 2011) uses the term ‘person with an impairment of the mind’. Specifically, the interpretation on page 40 states:

A person is an ‘intellectually impaired person’ if the person has a disability –
   (a) that is attributable to an intellectual, psychiatric, cognitive or neurological impairment or a combination of these; and  
   (b) that results in:

      (i) a substantial reduction of the person’s capacity for communication, social interaction and learning; and
      (ii) the person needing support.

Self-definitions

Self-definitions are valuable because they give us insights into the impact of intellectual disability on individuals. Such perspectives enable people without an intellectual disability to gain an appreciation of the experience of living with an intellectual disability.

The following self-definitions are from constituents of Community Living Program (1994) and past group members of the WWILD SVP (Spork, 1994, pp. 11-14):

(I’m) someone who takes a while to learn things.

I think it’s being slow, and they think very simple.

I’ve got a disability and it takes me longer to work things out. But just because it takes me longer doesn’t mean that I can’t do it!

I have a learning disability which means I have had to have a lot of strength to get by day by day.

I have a learning difficulty and am no different from you. I can be hurt and I can be happy.

Sometimes you can’t even see the disability inside you. You can’t tell.

The public don’t understand. Some people with intellectual disability, it could be the way they look or they might have some sort of behaviour problem and the public just make fun of it.

I feel mind disabilities are worse than physical disabilities. You can’t touch the mind. When you see a disabled person, you can see a person when they’re physically disabled, and you ask questions like ‘Why is she walking like that?’ You can see with your eyes what’s wrong with the person but in your mind you cannot see a person with a mind disability.

I feel that I have a slowness in my mind but I think my mind thinks for itself. It does everything that other people do but I do not have a job because the doctors told me that stress would trigger off something in my brain and that’s too high of a risk for me to take.

Well as far as I understand about intellectual disability, it means you might be 28 years old, you might only have the brain of a 20 year old or something.

And sometimes I don’t always act my age and might do abnormal things. With my learning disability and that. And so it’s, yeh y’know, it’s not always easy to cope with.

Somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of people with an intellectual disability are in the 55-70 IQ range, otherwise known as the ‘mild’ intellectual disability group. ‘Mild’, however, is an unfortunate term that minimises the seriousness and challenges of living with intellectual disability (M. O’Connor, personal communication, 28 April 2011).

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