A primer on intellectual disability

Human brainI’ve started giving talks about Uncle Melrose and the world that he and other people with intellectual disabilities have lived in for the past century. In making these presentations, I’ve found that many people are not familiar with the term “intellectual disability.”

I find that I need to explain not only what it is, but explain the difference between intellectual disability and mental illness.

The two are often confused, but they are very different human conditions.

Being culturally sensitive

Twenty years ago, we referred to people with intellectual disabilities as being “mentally retarded.” This terminology, although it is far preferable to some of the labels that were common 100 years ago, is no longer considered acceptable.

Today, if you have an intellectual disability, it was usually present at birth. People who are described in this way have a permanent condition in which their intellectual functioning is impaired. They cannot be “cured,” but can live successful lives with the right kind support.

What is mental illness?

Mental illness, on the other hand, has nothing to do with intelligence level. Mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts thinking, emotions, moods, and daily functioning.  Mental illnesses include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression.

Whether a person has mental illness or an intellectual disability, it is important to note that their condition is not due to lack of character or poor upbringing. These impairments can happen to anyone, regardless of their race, sex, country of origin or income level.