What is intellectual disability?

Hi, my name is Chris. I have a disability but I’m also so many other things. I want to tell the world that I’m a strong, independent person and I’m always busy. I come here to the Learning and Lifestyle hub to socialise and see my friends.

Intellectual disability is a life-long disability that can make it difficult for people to learn, communicate and problem solve. It is a spectrum and can impact people in a variety of different ways.

Confusingly, intellectual disability can go by other names. In the UK it is mainly referred to as a learning disability and in the US you’ll often hear developmental disability. Sometimes you’ll even hear it as the acronym ‘ID’.

Intellectual disability is more common than most people think. It’s generally thought that between 1.5 - 3% of Australians have it.

As an organisation that exists to support people with intellectual disability, we’ve recognised that there is still a lot the general population doesn’t know about it – so that’s why we’re shining a light on it in this blog.

What to know about intellectual disability 

People with intellectual disability are people first.

They experience the same needs, goals, interests and aspirations as people without intellectual disability.

Not everyone’s experiences are the same.

Both Alex and Jane are Endeavour Foundation customers and have written about their lived experience of intellectual disability.

Read Jane's storyRead Alex's story

What causes intellectual disability?

While there is no one cause of intellectual disability, here are some of the most common ones:

Genetic conditions

A genetic condition is something that you can inherit from your parents and are born with. It doesn’t always mean that the parents have these conditions themselves.

Down syndrome, prader-willi Syndrome and fragile X syndrome are all examples of genetic conditions that can cause in intellectual disability.

Environmental and other causes

Sometimes intellectual disability is caused by environmental factors. What these environmental causes are can be extremely varied, and may include things like fetal alcohol syndrome and problems at birth.

Intellectual disability as a scale

Just as all people are different, so too are their disabilities. Intellectual disability is often an umbrella term that encompasses a vast spectrum.

There are generally three categories to this spectrum:

Mild intellectual disability

This is generally someone with an IQ between 50 and 70. They may be able to learn to read and write, live and travel independently and have a job. Many people with mild intellectual disability will get married and have long-term partners.

People with mild intellectual disability might need a bit of support with daily activities from time to time.

Moderate intellectual disability

This is generally someone with an IQ between 35 and 50. People in this cohort often use support to enjoy the activities that are important to them. Often they can do things like learn to travel on public transport independently, but are quite likely to need help with daily tasks.

Severe intellectual disability

This is generally someone with an IQ between 20 and 35, and in profound instances, an IQ of less than 20. People with a severe intellectual disability generally need lifelong care to help them communicate and access the community. Many people in this group are non-verbal and they are often not the main decision maker in their life.

Common misconceptions about intellectual disability

Unless you know someone with an intellectual disability, chances are that you don’t know much about this world. Here are just a few misconceptions that they face:

MYTH: “People with intellectual disability can’t live a normal life”

This is just not true. People with intellectual disability live very rich, fulfilling lives, just like the regular population. While they may need a little support to help with their goals, it doesn’t stop them from having a great life.

MYTH: “People with intellectual disability can’t work”

Well, as one one of Australia’s biggest employers of people with intellectual disability – we beg to differ. We employ thousands of people with disability Australia-wide, and are always on the lookout for more. You can check out our supported employment page to see if we’re hiring in your area.

MYTH: “People with intellectual disability can’t move out of home and have an independent life”

It’s often assumed that people with intellectual disability will live at home forever, and this is just not the case. While some people do choose to stay at home, at the end of the day it’s a choice. Many people choose to live independently with support. It’s called supported independent living or supported accommodation and it’s something that the NDIS funds.

MYTH: “Intellectual disability is a mental health disorder”

A few years ago we did a surveyed Australians to find out their views on intellectual disability. One of the most surprising and unexpected findings was that many people think that intellectual disabilities and mental health disorders are the same thing.

While it’s true that many people with intellectual disability have a dual diagnosis, it’s just that, a dual diagnosis – so definitely not the same thing.

A big thank you to our Endeavour Foundation Champion Chris for being in the image for this blog.

Subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date