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Teaching Intellectually Disabled Students (Formerly known as MR)

Updated on January 13, 2013

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What Classifies Someone as Being Intellectually Disabled....The Criteria.

Many years ago when people heard of the terminology mental retardation they immediately associated it with someone who was incapable of being taught. However, over the years that terminology has since been reformed to take away from the negative labeling and also to distinguish between different categories of severe disabilities. Mental retardation (which has now been re-termed as intellectually disabled) refers to general sub average intellectual functioning that is co-morbid with deficits in social or adaptive functioning (Heward, 2003). The criteria for classifying someone as being mentally retarded has evolved from simple intelligence testing to a deficit in three different abilities. In order to be classified as being intellectually disabled one must display a deficit in three categories (Heward, 2003).

First, a score of two or more standard deviations below the norm on an intelligence test must be displayed.

Second, a person must display deficits in not only intellectual functioning, but also in adaptive behavior (or more commonly known as the ability to get along in life).

Finally, the third criteria specifies that the deficits must occur during the developmental period in order to distinguish between other disorders that could occur.

Issues with Classifying This Population

The concept of severe disabilities is something in which encompasses a wide range of disabilities, therefore one single definition is difficult to apply to this category. However, severe disabilities can be stated as a person who has a significant deficit in intellectual, physical, and social or behavioral functioning (Heward, 2003). Under this category there are different disabilities which fall into the category of severe disabilities. Those would include multiple disabilities, autism, blindness, deaf or hearing impaired, severe mental retardation, severe emotional disturbance, orthopedic problems which are severe in nature, and any health impairment which is severe (Heward, 2003).

Although mental retardation falls under this category to a degree, the tests or assessment methods generally used with mental retardation do not apply here. Due to the vast categories of severity, intelligence testing may prove to be useless with this population. Instead, education professionals may use developmental progress indicators or the degree of educational need. One issue with this classification system is that it is not generally recognized by IDEA.

What Causes Intellectual Disabilities? Some Thoughts on the Matter

Many people have pondered over what causes a disability and what can be done to intervene prior to its occurrence. Although this seems to be an easy question, it is one which not always comes with an easy answer. For the most part, some of the severe disabilities mentioned are caused by different environmental and genetic discrepancies.

For instance, researchers have isolated the fact that an intellectual disability is caused by more than 250 different variables (Heward, 2003). In fact, the development of a child's intellectual and social being may be influenced prior to birth, shortly after birth, or during a change in one's life (ie. accidents). This can also be said of severe and multiple disability categories. However, as previously mentioned, the same cannot be said for PDD related disorders, which continue to stump researchers. At present, PDD related disorders have not been attributed to a specific thing, although there are speculations.

Curricular Needs for Students With Intellectual Disabilities

The curricular needs for students with severe disabilities should not be considered to be the same for those students in special education with other disabilities (ie. Learning Disabled, LD or Emotionally Disturbed, ED). The needs of this unique population is one in which creates a specific curriculum. For instance, a student who as been classified as having one of the above disabilities probably does not benefit from learning algebra (although this may be something some students can do, such as asperger's students).

Instead, the goals for students with said disabilities might focus (enjoying life, community or social relationships, and school). These types of skills are the skills which would most benefit the student with a severe disability and skills which could generalize to life after school (Monterey County Office of Education, 2005).

Furthermore, another goal of curricular development for this population focuses more on life skills that are needed for the student to be able to take care of oneself and actively engage in life by being as independent as possible. This might include being able to cook for oneself, cleaning, reading ads and filling out applications, driving, budgeting bills, making appointments and other skills such as those. The degree to which goals are needed will be determined by the level of functioning of the student. What may apply to one student might not apply to another student, therefore it is important to determine levels of functioning (Monterey County Office of Education).

In preparing programs for Intellectually Disabled (ID) students collaboration needs to occur between many different levels and agencies. For example, parents and teachers need to collaborate on the needs of the child and what he or she is capable of. In many cases a parent is the best resource a teacher has. They can offer advice as to what a child is capable of accomplishing at home and in school. In addition, teachers need to collaborate with one another for the most effective instruction to occur. Say for instance a student’s needs are daily living skills. In this case the physical education teacher and special education teacher could work together to create a curriculum for that particular student to further develop this area. However, the emphasis should be on everyone on the team working together to benefit the student.

Another important factor to consider is the population one works with. Many students who are labeled as ID are not truly ID students. This might be the case with students coming from another country who do not speak the language or whose culture is vastly different than in this country. Cultural and language barriers are sure to be an issue for these students. If these students are tested for disabilities a school needs to consider their culture and language and use measures which reflect that culture. Many times, what they learn in their native country are not what they learn here in the United States. The goals for students with cultural and linguistic implications should not be on assuming they are ID because of what tests say, but on giving them assessments in their native culture, speaking with parents about their abilities, and also speaking with the student.

In conclusion, students who are labeled as ID should not be viewed as incapable. Teachers, parents, and community members need to look at each student as an individual and determine what needs to be done to help that student succeed. In the past mental retardation was viewed as a crutch, but today with the technology and devices we possess we can do more than we ever dreamed for these students.


Autism Society of America (2004). What causes autism? Retrieved

NICHY (2004). Severe and or multiple disabilities.

Heward, W.L. (2003). Exceptional children: an introduction to special education (7th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Monterey County Office of Education. (2005). Special education: students with severe disabilities.

Thomas, G.E. (1996). Teaching students with mental retardation: a life goal curriculum planning approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.


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    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 5 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      I appreciate you bringing up the issue of the terminology being changed from mental retardation (MR) to intellectually disabled (ID). This has been a sore spot for educators and parents alike, as the MR label seemed to be a personal life sentence, whereas ID describes the disability rather than the person. The challenges these families face are astronomical, and many resources are needed to assist them.

    • dkm27 profile image

      dkm27 5 years ago from Chicago

      I recently retired from teaching full-time. I do tutor students with special needs. I have tutored one student for 15 years. He is now 21 years old, and we are still working together. He has a wonderful family and a very active life.

    • jenntyl99 profile image

      jenntyl99 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      I commend anyone who teaches, let alone teaches challenging populations. I can only imagie how difficult it is to teach in another country, let alone have students with disabilities. Thanks for your kind words!

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      An excellent hub! In my teaching of EFL students in Thailand, I run into a few MR students in each class. It is a challenge, but I really appreciate your great ideas.