What is an Intellectual Disability?


An intellectual disability (also commonly referred to as a developmental disability among other terms) is, simply stated, a disability that significantly affects one’s ability to learn and use information. It is a disability that is present during childhood and continues throughout one’s life. A person who has an intellectual disability is capable of participating effectively in all aspects of daily life, but sometimes requires more assistance than others in learning a task, adapting to changes in tasks and routines, and addressing the many barriers to participation that result from the complexity of our society.

Community Living Supports Citizenship!

Citizenship is about every individual’s right to embrace and fully participate in a community that values diversity and strives for the inclusion of all its members.

For people who have an intellectual disability, it’s also about experiencing the same human rights, responsibilities, and opportunities as others in society. It means that all people have the right to participate and contribute to society through the many stages of life from birth to death. These stages include being welcomed at daycare, pursuing a meaningful education, dating a person of his or her choice (and getting married), finding a job, choosing a place to live, and retiring with choices. It also means living a life beyond the ‘service system’, a life in community, where people can experience self-determination through their own choices. For every person, citizenship also means feeling like you belong to a community, and in that community, you are respected for your abilities, inherent talents and unique contributions to that community’s ultimate success.

Definition of Intellectual or Developmental Disability
First of all, a word about the words ‘intellectual’ and ‘developmental.’
The Community Living Ontario has adopted the use of the term ‘intellectual disability’ largely to conform with growing national and international use of the term. This is not so much a decision based on definitions or perceived definitions as it is a choice of convenience and consistency – posters or advertisements created nationally or internationally use the term ‘intellectual disability’ and we want the public to recognize us when they see those promotional materials. We encourage local Associations to follow the same path, but there is no formal pressure to do so. Local Associations should use the language with which the people they support are most comfortable.

A glance around the websites of local Community Living associations indicates that the choice each local association makes appears to reflect well-thought-out approaches to language. Some associations use ‘intellectual,’ some use ‘developmental’ and yet many others choose to use language that makes no reference to defined terms at all, focusing instead on the goal and vision of inclusion of all people, an exercise not limited to just the people we support. This implies a broadened approach to the work we do, focusing on building inclusive communities generally, rather than just in areas of specific disability. A community that has the capacity to include people with language barriers, physical barriers and emotional or social barriers becomes a community that also has the capacity to include the people we support.

It should be noted that both ‘intellectual disability’ and ‘developmental disability’ are terms to be used only when necessary to describe the work we do, and should not be used merely as labels. Self-advocates have repeatedly asked us to avoid using labels. Habit and ease of conversation often lead us to use labels when it is not necessary to do so.

So, while respecting and responding to the value of precision in our language, we hope that we don’t get ourselves caught up in dictionary debates about which adjective best goes with the word ‘disability.’ (Remember: we’ve had the same energy-consuming debate in the past about the word ‘disability’, as opposed to ‘handicap’, ‘challenge’, ‘delay’, etc.) It is our hope that we can embrace the richness and flexibility of our language so that we use it in ways that respect the people to whom we are referring, and in ways that encourage others to share that respect.

Now, it is still fair to ask, ‘What is an intellectual or developmental disability?’

Community Living Ontario has not had occasion to employ a definition of developmental disability, but we are aware of several different descriptions wordings that are in use by various local and provincial Associations. From these, I have drafted a potential description that may suit your purposes. Definitions are by nature categorizing, and as you know, it is fundamental to the goal of inclusion that people be categorized as little as possible.

What is an Intellectual (or Developmental) Disability?

An intellectual (or developmental) disability is a life-long condition, usually present at birth or originating in the early years of childhood, which interferes with one’s ability to learn at the same pace or to the same extent as others. Individuals may have difficulty understanding abstract concepts or adapting to some of the demands of daily life. There are more than 200 known causes of intellectual disability; thus, the nature and extent vary greatly between individuals, and may or may not be accompanied by other physical conditions.

Many people who are labeled as having an intellectual disability are able to communicate, engage in social activities, work and participate in life as we all do, with very little support other than the natural supports we all require. Others with more severe disabilities may participate in different ways and with different levels of support. As with any individual, people who have an intellectual disability are capable of many accomplishments, and simply require an opportunity to be included in the daily life of their community in order to make their unique contribution.

Community Living Ontario Common Terms of Reference:

  • We say or write ‘a person who has’ or ‘people who have’ an intellectual disability instead of referring to a person or people as ‘disabled.’  We try to avoid using ‘a person with’ or ‘people with’ an intellectual disability.
  • We use the word ‘typical’ rather than ‘normal’ when speaking about people who have an intellectual disability and ideas, events, relationships, or situations affecting their lives.
  • We try to avoid speaking about people supported by Community Living as ‘clients’, though some local Community Living associations may use this term. Instead, we use ‘people/persons supported by Community Living’, or ‘person/people who receive(s) support.’
  • We try to avoid speaking about people who have an intellectual disability in ways that categorize people as other i.e. using words or terms like ‘they’ or ‘them’ or ‘these/those people.’

Reprinted with permission from Community Living Ontario (Direct Link to Community Living)

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