What Are Intellectual Disabilities?

According to the definition by the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD), an individual is considered to have an intellectual disability based on the following three criteria:

  1. Intellectual functioning level (IQ) is below 70-75;
  2. Significant limitations exist in two or more adaptive skill areas; and
  3. The condition manifests itself before the age of 18.

Adaptive skill areas are those daily living skills needed to live, work and play in the community. The definition includes 10 adaptive skills: communication, self-care, home living, social skills, leisure, health and safety, self-direction, functional academics, community use and work.

Adaptive skills are assessed in the person’s typical environment across all aspects of an individual’s life. A person with limits in intellectual functioning who does not have limits in adaptive skill areas may not be diagnosed as having an intellectual disability.

Children with intellectual disabilities grow into adults with intellectual disabilities; they do not remain “eternal children.”

A person is eligible to participate in Special Olympics if they have been identified by an agency of professional as having intellectual disabilities as determined by their localities. The minimum age requirement for participation in Special Olympics competition is eight years of age. Special Olympics also offers the Young Athletes Program, an innovative sports play program for children with intellectual disabilities between the ages of 2-7, which engages young athletes through developmentally appropriate play activities designed to foster physical, cognitive, and social development while also introducing them to the world of sports prior to Special Olympics eligibility at age eight.

How Prevalent Are Intellectual Disabilities?

The following statistics and information on intellectual disabilities have been adapted from information from the Population Reference Bureau, The Arc (formerly the Association for Retarded Citizens), the World Health Organization and various associations for people with disabilities.

According to the World Health Organization, up to three percent – or almost 200 million people – of the world’s population have intellectual disabilities. This is the largest disability population in the world.

Intellectual disabilities know no boundaries. It cuts across the lines of racial, ethnic, educational, social and economic backgrounds, and it can occur in any family.

Disability Language Guidelines

Words matter. Words can open doors to cultivate the understanding and respect that enable people with disabilities to lead fuller, more independent lives. Words can also create barriers or stereotypes that are not only demeaning to people with disabilities, but also rob them of their individuality. The following language guidelines have been developed by experts for use by anyone writing or speaking about people with intellectual disabilities to ensure that all people are portrayed with individuality and dignity.

Special Olympics prefers to focus on people and their gifts and accomplishments, and to dispel negative attitudes and stereotypes. As language has evolved, Special Olympics has updated its official terminology to use standard terminology that is more acceptable to our athletes. We use “people-first language” – example: refer to people with intellectual disabilities, rather than “intellectually disabled people”. See more tips below.

Appropriate Terminology

  • Refer to participants in Special Olympics as “Special Olympics athletes” rather than “Special Olympians” or “Special Olympic athletes.”
  • Refer to individuals, persons or people with intellectual disabilities, rather than “intellectually disabled people” or “the intellectually disabled.”
  • A person has intellectual disabilities, rather than is ‘”suffering from,” is “afflicted with” or “is a victim of” mental retardation/intellectual disabilities.
  • Distinguish between adults and children with intellectual disabilities. Use adults or children, or older or younger athletes.
  • A person “uses” a wheelchair, rather than is “confined” or “restricted to” a wheelchair.
  • “Down syndrome” has replaced “Down’s Syndrome” and “mongoloid.”
  • Refer to participants in Special Olympics as athletes. In no case should the word athletes appear in quotation marks.
  • In formal documents, refer to persons with a disability in the same style as persons without a disability: full name on first reference and last name on subsequent references. Do not refer to an individual with intellectual disabilities as “Bill” rather than the journalistically correct “Bill Smith” or “Smith.”
  • A person has a physical disability rather than crippled.
  • Use the words “Special Olympics” when referring to the worldwide Special Olympics movement.
  • Use the words “Special Olympics Wisconsin” when referring to the Wisconsin Special Olympics Program. “SOWI” may be used on second reference.

Terminology to Avoid

  • Do not use the label “kids” when referring to Special Olympics athletes. Adult athletes are an integral part of the movement.
  • Do not use the word “the” in front of Special Olympics unless describing a specific Special Olympics event or official.
  • Do not use the adjective “unfortunate” when talking about persons with an intellectual disability. Disabling conditions do not have to be life-defining in a negative way.
  • Do not sensationalize the accomplishments of persons with disabilities. While these accomplishments should be recognized and applauded; people in the disability rights movement have tried to make the public aware of the negative impact of referring to the achievements of people with physical or intellectual disabilities with excessive hyperbole.
  • Use the word “special” with extreme care when talking about persons with intellectual disabilities. The term, if used excessively in references to Special Olympics athletes and activities, can become a cliché.