Intellectual Disability

The Anne McDonald Centre works with people diagnosed as having an intellectual disability


The Centre works with people diagnosed as having an intellectual disability (or intellectual impairment, or mental retardation; many names, same problems).

I say ‘diagnosed as having an intellectual disability’ rather than ‘with an intellectual disability’ because I think the concept of intellectual disability is intellectually incoherent.

There’s no way to put a ruler against someone’s mind.  Everything we know about a person is based on their performance – their performance on IQ tests, their performance at school, their performance at speaking and walking and behaving. In particular, we've found that virtually everybody who is regarded as intellectually disabled has severe expressive language impairment.

When a person scores significantly below average on cognitive tests, most of which involve language, there are two ways of interpreting the results.

One is that the tests reflect the reality.  The person has a global mental deficit, a ‘blinkus in the thinkus’.

The other is that the test results are not measuring the underlying mind but are instead picking up interference from outside the mind – that they are
•    A social construct resulting from inappropriate testing, or
•    Evidence of one or more functional problems affecting performance, or
•    An example of the wide range of variation among humans, and not a deficit at all.

The global explanation is expressed in the term ‘intellectual disability’ – the person’s mind has an overall problem and just doesn’t have the neural capacity to allow them to think as well as other people.  A 1981 IBM PC simply doesn’t have the capacity of a 2019 desktop supercomputer.

The other sort of explanation suggests that there isn’t a general deficit, there are particular problems that are snarling things up – that we’re all running the same machines, but some of us have buggy software.

If there’s a general deficit, there’s not much that can be done about it.  If there are particular problems, we can see what can be done to fix them.

The only way to test which of these explanations is correct is to work on the basis that the second explanation is correct.  We try to identify and address whatever may be interfering with performance – ethnicity, environment, education or lack of it, sensory impairments, physical impairments and so on -- and see whether the person’s communication performance improves. 

Anne McDonald Centre. 538 Dandenong Road, Caulfield 3162 Victoria, Australia Ph: 03 9509 6324, Fax: 03 9509 6321
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