Intellectual Disability

What is Intellectual Disability?

According to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD), intellectual disability is a disability characterized by significant limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviour.

Intellectual functioning, or mental capacity, involves reasoning, learning and problem solving.

Adaptive behaviour covers three types of skills:

  • Conceptual skills—language and literacy, money, time, and number concepts; and self-direction;
  • Social skills—interpersonal skills, social responsibility, gullibility and naiveté, social problem solving, and the ability to follow rules/ obey laws, and to avoid being victimized;
  • Practical skills—activities of daily living (personal care), occupational skills, healthcare, travel/transportation, schedules/routines, safety, use of money, use of the telephone.

What does having an intellectual disability mean?

A person who has an intellectual disability is capable of learning and of participating socially. However, acquiring the adaptive behavioural skills listed above may have to be done at a slower pace, various different kinds of support may be required, and it may not always be possible to learn to the same extent.

  • This is a life-long disability that becomes evident before the age of 18, usually at birth or at a fairly young age;
  • The Canadian estimate most often used is that about 2% of the Canadian population has an intellectual disability. This translates to approximately 899,000 (according to the CACL) across Canada;
  • 88% of them have a mild intellectual disability;
  • The great majority of adults who have an intellectual disability live on incomes situated below the poverty line.

Intellectual Disability is not…

  • An illness;
  • A mental health issue;
  • A pervasive development disorder (PDD) such as autism
  • An inability to learn, or to obey rules, or to accomplish.

And finally, a person with an intellectual disability is not a child of “x” age in an adult’s body. He or she is a person whose developmental difficulties will have affected functioning level in various areas. These difficulties will not have erased or blocked the years of experience they have picked up and lived through.

What causes intellectual disability?

According to the AAIDD, our understanding of the causes of intellectual disability focuses on:

  • the types of risk factors (biomedical, social, behavioral, and educational) and
  • the timing of exposure (prenatal, perinatal, and postnatal) to those factors.

However, although there are 350 recognized causes of intellectual disability (200 causes according to the CLON), three-quarters of the time the specific cause is unknown.

Intellectual disability may appear in any family, regardless of race, religion or social class.


Intellectual Disability vs. Intellectual Handicap: What’s in a Name?

In 1935 our association was founded under the name of The Montreal Association for the Mentally Retarded. In 1985 this name was changed to our current name of The Montréal Association for the Intellectually Handicapped to better reflect changing attitudes of the time.

Attitudes continued to evolve and 25 years later our name has once again become outdated, with other terms (intellectual disability, developmental disability, intellectual challenge, etc.) commonly preferred to intellectual handicap.

Because no clear consensus exists in English with respect to the naming of organizations working on behalf of this population, the MAIH has decided not to change its name for the time being. Nevertheless, we have decided to use the currently accepted term intellectual disability instead of intellectual handicap in our publications.

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