View Dyslexie font  |  View high contrast
Subscribe to the ADCET newsletter

Intellectual Disability

The term 'intellectual disability' refers to a group of conditions caused by various genetic disorders and infections. Intellectual disability is usually identified during childhood, and has an ongoing impact on an individual’s development. Intellectual disability can be defined as a significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information, learn new skills and to cope independently including social functioning. As with all disability groups, there are many types of intellectual disability with varying degrees of severity.  These include considerable differences in the nature and extent of the intellectual impairments and functional limitations, the causes of the disability, the personal background and social environment of the individual. Some people have genetic disorders that impact severely on their intellectual, social and other functional abilities. Others with mild intellectual impairment may develop adequate living skills and are able to lead relatively independent adult lives.  Approximately 75 per cent of people with intellectual disability are only mildly affected, with 25 per cent moderately, severely or profoundly affected.

Impact of intellectual disability

The characteristics and impact of a person’s intellectual disability will vary depending on the cause.  There are a number of common characteristics that may have a significant impact on an individual’s learning, including:

  • difficulty understanding new information
  • difficulties with communication and social skills
  • slow cognitive processing time
  • difficulty in the sequential processing of information
  • difficulties comprehending abstract concepts.

Austed discussions during 2014 highlighted the challenges that students with an intellectual disability can experience at university level. Students may cope well with  the 'hands-on' components of  post-secondary study, but find it difficult to understand complex information.

One strategy known to be successful is to integrate people with an intellectual disability by providing opportunities for auditing classes. Auditing is an approach whereby a person attends lectures in an award course for general interest (i.e. not for the purpose of completing the requirements of the award).  Auditing does not include assessment, online learning material, or  attendance at laboratory or tutorial classes. It can include access to the library and general campus facilities.

Teaching strategies

It is important to know that despite difficulties in a learning environment students with intellectual disability can and do have the capacity to acquire and use new information. There is a range of inclusive teaching strategies that can assist all students to learn but there are some specific strategies that are useful in teaching a group which includes students with intellectual disability:

  • Provide an outline of what will be taught - highlight key concepts and provide opportunities to practise new skills and concepts.
  • Provide reading lists well before the start of a course so that reading can begin early.
  • Consider tailoring reading lists and provide guidance to key texts. Allow work to be completed on an in-depth study of a few texts rather than a broad study of many.
  • Whenever you are introducing procedures or processes or giving directions, for example in a laboratory or computing exercise, ensure that stages or sequences are made clear and are explained in verbal as well as written form.
  • Students may benefit from using assistive technology.
  • Use as many verbal descriptions as possible to supplement material presented on blackboard or overhead
  • Use clear, succinct, straightforward language.
  • Reinforce learning by using real-life examples and environments.
  • Present information in a range of formats – handouts, worksheets, overheads, videos – to meet a diversity of learning styles.
  • Use a variety of teaching methods so that students are not constrained by needing to acquire information by reading only. Where possible, present material diagrammatically - in lists, flow charts, concept maps etc.
  • Keep diagrams uncluttered and use colour wherever appropriate to distinguish and highlight.
  • Ensure that lists of technical/professional jargon which students will need to learn are available early in the course.
  • Recording lectures will assist those students who have handwriting or coordination problems and those who write slowly as well as those who have a tendency to mishear or misquote.
  • Students will be more likely to follow correctly the sequence of material in a lecture if they are able to listen to the material more than once.
  • Wherever possible, ensure that key statements and instructions are repeated or highlighted in some way.
  • One-to-one tutoring in subjects may be important; this can include peer tutoring.
  • Students may benefit from having oral rather than written feedback on their written assignments.
  • It may be helpful for students with intellectual disability to have an individual orientation to laboratory equipment or computers to minimise anxiety.

Assessment strategies

Students with intellectual disability may need particular adjustments to assessment tasks. Once you have a clear picture of how the disability impacts on learning, you can consider alternative assessment strategies. In considering alternative forms of assessment, equal opportunity is not a guaranteed outcome, it is the objective. You are not expected to lower standards to accommodate students with disability but rather are required to give them a reasonable opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned:

  • Allow extensions to assignment deadlines
  • Use technology to record students work, e.g. digital photography, tape and video.
  • Students may take longer to organise thoughts and sequence material. They will benefit from discussing their outlines, with particular attention being paid to appropriate relationships and connections between points.
  • Encourage the student to submit an early draft of assignments to allow the opportunity for feedback to the student as a formative process.
  • Students with an intellectual disability will need extra time in an examination for reading and analysing questions and for planning their answers. Some students will request that examination questions be read to them. Some students may prefer to dictate their answers to a scribe. They will need a venue which is quiet and distraction-free.
  • Keep short your written examination instructions and sentences within examination questions. Questions using bullet points, lists or distinct parts are more likely to be correctly interpreted.
  • Because students with intellectual  disability find it difficult to read multiple choice questions in a way that allows them to appreciate subtle changes in the arrangement of words, short answer questions will be a better test of their knowledge.
  • Students may benefit from an exam timetable that features a number of days between exams to assist in exam preparation.
  • Many students with intellectual disability are chronic misspellers and use dictionaries only with great difficulty.

Related Resources

ADCET Webinars

    Pathways Conference Presentations

      International Resources

        Assistive Technology