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What are intellectual disabilities?

1001 Drawings
1001 Drawings

Not very many people are familiar with the term ‘intellectual disabilities’. In fact, up until last summer, the term ‘intellectual disabilities’ wasn’t widely used to describe people who don’t display average intelligence. The term that was most widely used and accepted, and that you may be most familiar with, was ‘mental retardation’.

In July of 2009, the Virginia Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation, and Substance Abuse Services (DMHMRSAS) adopted the new term of ‘intellectual disabilities’ as the official diagnosis term replacing the term ‘mental retardation’. In addition, they changed their name to the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS). Brought about by former Virginia Governor Mark Warner in 2005, the idea behind the name changes as well as other improvements was to change the system to one that encourages self-determination and recovery, known as the transformation initiative.

Where the name came from is just as important as what the name stands for. To be diagnosed with an intellectual disability a person has to have displayed an intelligence quotient score (IQ) below 70. The characteristics of an intellectual disability are typically decreased learning ability, inability to meet intellectual developmental markers, and difficulty or lack of meeting the demands of the educational system. In severe cases, there is even a tendency to not grow beyond behaviors that are infant-like. Many people with intellectual disabilities are dual diagnosed (a subject that will be discussed in the future).

Intellectual disabilities are broken down into levels of severity. Mild intellectual disabilities are generally characterized by decreased social skills, mildly impaired independent living skills, and some weak academic skills in one or more areas. The characteristics of moderate intellectual disabilities do not differ by much. People with moderate intellectual disabilities may need more intense residential supports such as a group home environment. With severe intellectual disabilities, what most people think of when they here the term ‘special needs’, the supports for the person are greater as the deficit in intellectual processes is greater. Many people with severe intellectual disabilities have an IQ score below 30 and display infant-like behaviors. They usually require 24 hour residential care and support so that they may live within the community.

What many people may not realize is that despite each person’s level of intellect, they can still lead good and productive lives. It is estimated that approximately 3% of the world’s population has an intellectual disability. Only about 1% of those diagnosed with an intellectual disability actually requires or receive assistance. The reasoning for this is based on the amount of early interventions, opportunities to learn, and educational and emotional supports provided to the person. In addition, the determination of the person to succeed and the encouragement of the support system (family, friends, and the community) play an even larger role in the success of a person with an intellectual disability.

There are many causes of intellectual disabilities from genetic disorders to environmental factors. However, doctors have only been able to find the reason for an intellectual disability in about 25% of the people that are diagnosed. There is no cure. There is no special pill or wonder drug that can get rid of an intellectual disability. There are only treatments such as education, support, and accommodations.

An intellectual disability does not have to keep a person from leading a good and happy life in a productive and fulfilling manner. It just means that they need a little extra help to do so. People with intellectual disabilities love and feel just as anybody else does. They can get married, vote, raise families, and enjoy all the same freedoms. They just need your support.


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