People with intellectual disabilities usually have a lower level of intellectual function, and are generally limited in personal skills, self-care skills and communication skills. These characteristics must show up in the first eighteen years of a person's life to be called 'intellectual disability'.

A person with an intellectual disability may also have one or more accompanying impairments such as hearing, visual or other physical disability. Respiratory, heart/cardiac impairment and epilepsy are also common.

Intellectual disability can be attributed to a range of known causes but in most cases the cause is unknown. Some known causes include:

  • Brain injury or infection before, during or after birth
  • Growth or nutrition problems
  • Faulty chromosomes and genes
  • Babies born long before the expected birth date – also called extreme prematurity
  • Health problems during childhood
  • Drug misuse during pregnancy, including excessive alcohol intake and smoking
  • Environmental deprivation
  • Exposure to toxins
  • A range of medical disorders.

Special education and training, and adequate support and medical treatment can help to lessen the affects of the disability but it is not curable.

A wide range of abilities is covered by the term intellectual ability and include:

Mild Intellectual Disability– is defined as an IQ between 50 & 70. People may be studying or working in integrated or open settings. They may live independently, travel independently and mix in social settings. They may need assistance with money and organizing their daily lives, and may not understand social etiquette. They may learn to read and write, although this maybe at a basic level, and therefore may have difficulties filling in forms. It is important to be sensitive to this.

Moderate Intellectual Disability – is defined as an IQ between 35 & 50. People can develop communication skills and talk and interact socially. May develop some independence, although will always need assistance in planning and organizing their daily lives. People may learn to recognize some common, often used words, and will learn through a task being broken down into small components and through repetition.

Severe Intellectual Disability- is defined as an IQ between 25 & 35. People will usually recognize familiar people, and those who they have strong relationships with. They are likely to have little or no verbal communication skills and will rely on gestures, facial expression and body movements. People will require lifelong assistance with personal care, communication and participating in community activities.

Though no two people with an intellectual disability are affected in the same way, there are some common characteristics that may be experienced to varying degrees.

A person with an intellectual disability may display one or more of the following:

(The range and severity will differ from person to person)

  • Inability to think in abstract terms;
  • Lack of decision making ability;
  • Poor short term memory;
  • Learning difficulties and generally few literacy or numeracy skills;
  • Inconsistent concentration span;
  • Communication difficulties; or
  • Limited ability to function independently i.e. may not be able to perform daily living tasks without assistance.

Recognize that people with an intellectual disability:

  • Are not all alike, they can all be affected in a different way;
  • May also have physical disabilities;
  • Can learn and develop new skills;
  • Have feelings and emotions like other people;
  • Can have control over their behaviour; and
  • Can integrate and participate in general community activities.

A person with an intellectual disability may also have one or more of the following related difficulties:

  • Sensory disability (hearing, sight);
  • Physical disability;
  • Communication difficulties;
  • Medical difficulties;
  • Behavioural difficulties;
  • Attention difficulties;
  • Social difficulties; or
  • Hyperactivity.

Be aware of the following when working with a person with an intellectual disability on a sport and active recreation program:

Make all activities fun and enjoyable, where possible.

The level of expectation is very important, do not make allowances, change rules or lower standards. Encourage full and equal participation. Plan activities to allow for success, not failure due to the difficulty of the task.

Understand how the participant communicates. Communication may be difficult; therefore you will need to keep verbal communication basic and brief. Be clear, concise, deliberate and sequential, and reinforce your message.

Provide clear demonstration of an activity and participate yourself so that your involvement can be modeled.

Do not assume that a head shake or nod means that the person has understood, seek further clarification of understanding from the person by checking that they have understood correctly.

Much learning occurs through looking and listening. When teaching new skills illustrate well and assist the person to move through the processes.

Be specific in praise and encouragement, 'good girl' can be patronizing while 'good hit' focuses on the action being encouraged.

Break down learning of new skills into discrete components, ensuring a good understanding of the first component before moving on. Reinforce good performance spontaneously. Practice new skills in short bursts to avoid concentration, loss and boredom.

Etiquette within an activity should be taught and practiced regularly.

Observe and talk to the person to become familiar with their intellectual and physical abilities. Activities can be developed to provide challenges to meet individual needs.

The appropriateness of expressing emotions through touch may need to be taught. Social etiquette may need to be reinforced.

Encourage competition with others but more importantly encourage each to be concerned with their own performance.

Further information : Victorian Government -

A description of some intellectual disabilities you may see on a program follows:

Stanislaw Tokarski /