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Central Susquehanna Valley
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Facts About Intellectual Disability

Keys to Understanding Intellectual Disability


Is intellectual disability the same as mental "illness?"

The fact is: Intellectual disability means that a person develops mentally at a below-average rate. They may have difficulty in learning and social adjustment, but they can learn. With the appropriate intervention and education, they can lead satisfying and productive lives in the community.

Is intellectual disability a contagious disease?

The fact is: Intellectual disability is not a disease and it is certainly not contagious. It is a condition which affects an individual because of some change or damage with the developing brain and neurological system.

Is intellectual disability the same as mental retardation?

The fact is: Mental retardation and intellectual disability are two names for the same thing. Intellectual disability is the current term for the disability historically referred to as mental retardation. Many families and individuals feel that the term mental retardation has negative connotations so in 2010 the federal government replaced the term mental retardation with intellectual disability in many areas of government then in 2011 the Pennsylvania legislature did the same.

Is intellectual disability the same as developmental disability?

The fact is: Not exactly. Developmental disability is an umbrella term that includes intellectual disability but also includes but is not limited to autism, cerebral palsy, severe seizure disorder, severe head injury that occurred before the age of 22. Some developmental disabilities can be strictly physical, such as blindness from birth. Some individuals have both physical and intellectual disabilities stemming from genetic or other physical causes (e.g., Down Syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome).

Do individuals with severe and profound intellectual disability need to be locked away in an institution for the safety of all concerned?

The fact is: Systematic training efforts have proven that most people with severe and profound intellectual disability can learn to at least care for their basic needs. Many can perform useful work with support and can otherwise adapt to normal patterns of life. It has been proven that the most effective environment for everyone to learn and develop is one which is in the community and which offers a family-like atmosphere of care and nurturing.

Will educational and vocational training help people who have intellectual disability?

The fact is: Most people with intellectual disability can learn, although at a slower rate, and are capable of living in the community with little or no support services. Early intervention is a major emphasis since it is proven that the sooner a person is diagnosed as having intellectual disability and appropriate programming is started, the more productive and capable the person will be to have a meaningful life in the community. Vocational programs offer a variety of services to prepare individuals for work. They may learn a trade or receive supported employment help to find a job in the competitive work environment.

Do we know what causes intellectual disability and can it be prevented?

The fact is: Intellectual disability can be caused by any condition which impairs development of the brain before or during birth or in early childhood. More than 250 causes have been discovered, but they account for only about one-fourth of the causes of intellectual disability. The most well-known are: Rubella or German measles in the pregnant female, meningitis, toxoplasmosis, Rh factor; and chromosomal abnormalities such as Down Syndrome. Intellectual disability can be prevented in some cases. Some prevention strategies include:

1. Access to good prenatal and postnatal care for mother and child.
2. Improved nutrition in pregnant women and infants.
3. Avoiding the use of drugs and alcohol during pregnancy.
4. Newborn screening and immunizations of mothers to prevent Rh blood factor.
5. Use of child seats and seat belts to prevent head injuries.
6. Screening for lead poisoning for all children under the age of 5.


People with intellectual disability are people first. They have the same needs and desires as everyone else. Treat them as individuals. Recognize their abilities - not their disabilities.




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