Intellectual Disability

Intellectual Disability

People with an intellectual disability are those who have limitations in intellectual function when compared to individuals of a similar age. These individuals may also demonstrate difficulties with personal skills needed for everyday living.

Intellectual disability is a lifelong disability that can affect many different areas of a person’s life and people with an intellectual disability may have difficulties with thought processes, learning, communicating, remembering information and using it appropriately, making judgments and problem solving.

The range of intellectual disability varies greatly from mild intellectual disability requiring low support, through to severe intellectual disability requiring complex support.

There are many causes of intellectual disability, but in the majority of cases, the reasons are still unknown. Known causes include:

  • Brain injury or infection before, during or after birth
  • Growth or nutrition problems
  • Abnormalities of chromosomes and genes
  • Babies born long before the expected birth date
  • Drug misuse during pregnancy, including excessive drug or alcohol intake and smoking.


The person may require assistance with:

  • Understanding detailed information
  • Following and understanding directions
  • Daily living tasks like handling money, planning meals, using public transport or personal care
  • Learning new information
  • Using and understanding spoken and written language
  • Completing documents

Communication Strategies

When communicating with a person with an intellectual disability it is important to acknowledge that each person is an individual and should be approached as such.

  • Meet in a setting that is comfortable and does not cause anxiety or distraction.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Use usual volume and tone.
  • Speak clearly, using plain English.
  • Check understanding, by asking person to repeat in their own words what you have said.
  • Ask short questions to gather information.
  • Don’t be frustrated if you have to repeat yourself.
  • Rephrase information if it is not understood, or present the information in another way.
  • Be patient, wait for them to finish what they are saying.
  • Ask the person to repeat something you do not understand.
  • If there is a support person you must address the person with the disability and not the support person.
  • Break up new information into small chunks.
  • To aid memory write information down or use pictures.
  • Ensure information and language used is appropriate to the individual’s needs.

Written Communication Strategies

  • Ensure information and language used is appropriate to the individual’s needs.
  • Providing information in multiple forms may assist with understanding — for example using pictures or visual aids may assist to explain the spoken message.
  • Information is best presented in:
  • Plain English
  • Short sentences
  • Point form where possible
  • Language that the person is familiar with
  • Graphics/pictures or diagrams where appropriate