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An intellectual disability (formerly termed mental retardation- no longer acceptable) is a disability characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior that affect many everyday social and practical skills. An individual is generally diagnosed as having an intellectual disability when: (1) the person's intellectual functioning level (IQ) is below 70-75; (2) the person has significant limitations in adaptive skill areas as expressed in conceptual, social, and practical skills; and (3) the disability originated before the age of 18.5 "Adaptive skill areas" refer to basic skills needed for everyday life. They include communication, self care, home living, social skills, leisure, health and safety, self direction, functional academics (reading, writing, basic math), and work. Individuals with severe intellectual disabilities are more likely to have additional limitations than persons with milder intellectual disabilities.
An estimated 2.5 million Americans have an intellectual disability. The majority of adults with an intellectual disability are either unemployed or underemployed, despite their ability, desire, and willingness to engage in meaningful work in the community.
As a result of changes made by the ADAAA, individuals who have an intellectual disability should easily be found to have a disability within the meaning of the first part of the ADA's definition of disability because they are substantially limited in brain function and other major life activities (for example, learning, reading, and thinking).An individual who was misdiagnosed as having an intellectual disability in the past also has a disability within the meaning of the ADA. Finally, an individual is covered under the third ("regarded as") prong of the definition of disability if an employer takes a prohibited action (for example, refuses to hire or terminates the individual) because of an intellectual disability or because the employer believes the individual has an intellectual disability.
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Individuals with intellectual disabilities benefit from the same teaching strategies used to teach people with other learning challenges. This includes learning disabilities, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and autism.
One such strategy is to break down learning tasks into small steps. Each learning task is introduced, one step at a time. This avoids overwhelming the student. Once the student has mastered one step, the next step is introduced. This is a progressive, step-wise, learning approach. It is characteristic of many learning models. The only difference is the number and size of the sequential steps.
A second strategy is to modify the teaching approach. Lengthy verbal directions and abstract lectures are ineffective teaching methods for most audiences. Most people are kinesthetic learners. This means they learn best by performing a task "hands-on." This is in contrast to thinking about performing it in the abstract. A hands-on approach is particularly helpful for students with ID. They learn best when information is concrete and observed. For example, there are several ways to teach the concept of gravity. Teachers can talk about gravity in the abstract. They can describe the force of gravitational pull. Second, teachers could demonstrate how gravity works by dropping something. Third, teachers can ask students directly experience gravity by performing an exercise. The students might be asked to jump up (and subsequently down), or to drop a pen. Most students retain more information from experiencing gravity firsthand. This concrete experience of gravity is easier to understand than abstract explanations.
Third, people with ID do best in learning environments where visual aids are used. This might include charts, pictures, and graphs. These visual tools are also useful for helping students to understand what behaviors are expected of them. For instance, using charts to map students' progress is very effective. Charts can also be used as a means of providing positive reinforcement for appropriate, on-task behavior.
A fourth teaching strategy is to provide direct and immediate feedback. Individuals with ID require immediate feedback. This enables them to make a connection between their behavior and the teacher's response. A delay in providing feedback makes it difficult to form connection between cause and effect. As a result, the learning point may be missed.