What is a developmental disability?

According to the Developmental Disabilities Act (Pub.L.106-402), the term developmental disability means a severe, chronic disability that:

  • is attributable to a mental or physical impairment or a combination of those impairments;
  • occurs before the individual reaches age 22;
  • is likely to continue indefinitely;
  • results in substantial functional limitations in three or more of the following areas of major life activity: (i) self care, (ii) receptive and expressive language, (iii) learning, (iv) mobility, (v) self-direction, (vi) capacity for independent living, and (vii) economic self-sufficiency; and
  • reflects the individual’s need for a combination and sequence of special, interdisciplinary, or generic services, individualized supports, or other forms of assistance that are of lifelong or extended duration and are individually planned and coordinated.

The term “developmental disability” can include several types of conditions including, but not limited to: autism, Down syndrome, Asperger’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, and epilepsy. Many states use different definitions for developmental disabilities based on the federal law.

What is an intellectual disability?

An intellectual disability is generally thought to be present if an individual has an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test score of approximately 70 or below (AAMR, 2002). Intelligence refers to a general mental capability. It involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience. IQ scores are determined from standardized tests given by trained professionals.

How many people are affected by an intellectual disability?

Studies have shown that somewhere between one and three percent of Americans have an intellectual disability, depending on how they are counted. Based on an IQ score alone, the percentages would be closer to three percent.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how many people have an intellectual disability. Studies alone may not identify everyone. Many school-age children receive a diagnosis of learning disability, developmental delay, behavior disorder, or autism instead of mental retardation.

What is the difference between an intellectual disability and mental illness?

An intellectual disability is not mental illness. An intellectual disability refers to a person’s capability to think and reason. Mental illness is an emotional disturbance. There may be one occurrence or several which can develop at any time in a person’s life. Like anyone else, a person with an intellectual disability may become emotionally disturbed or mentally ill, but they are separate conditions.

How do cognitive and intellectual disabilities affect individuals?

The effects of these disabilities vary considerably among people who have them, just as the range of abilities varies considerably among all people. 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.

Can education, training, and supports help?

While people with intellectual and developmental disabilities may learn more slowly than other people, they have many of the same hopes, fears, joys, problems, and needs that others do. They have talents and abilities that should be developed through individualized education, job training, and specialized therapies such as physical, occupational and speech therapies. Support can enhance individual functioning. Supports can come from family, friends and community as well as licensed service providers like Sunrise Community, Inc.

With early intervention as children and appropriate education, training, and supports as adults, all people with intellectual and developmental disabilities can lead satisfying lives in their communities. The end result is a better, more normal life for people who have the same rights and responsibilities as anyone else.

What types of services are available for a person with intellectual and developmental disabilities?

Possible services include:

  • In-home supports to help the individual live more independently.
  • Respite care to provide temporary relief to a caregiver.
  • Training programs to teach life and work skills.
  • Job coaches to help support successful employment in the community.
  • Residential living arrangements to provide the support, security and care needed.
  • Adaptive equipment for greater independence.
  • Other supports to improve quality of life.