Working Alongside People with Intellectual and Learning Disabilities

Identifying intellectual disability or impairment

What is intellectual disability?

Medical definition

The American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities defines intellectual disability as:


'a disability characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior, which covers many everyday social and practical skills. This disability originates before the age of 18.'

Legal Definition

The Queensland Criminal Law Code 1899 (December 2011) uses the term ‘person with an impairment of the mind’. Specifically, the interpretation on page 40 states:

A person is an ‘intellectually impaired person’ if the person has a disability –
   (a) that is attributable to an intellectual, psychiatric, cognitive or neurological impairment or a combination of these; and  
   (b) that results in:

      (i) a substantial reduction of the person’s capacity for communication, social interaction and learning; and
      (ii) the person needing support.


It is important to remember that people may not define themselves as having an intellectual disability.


The following self-definitions are from constituents of Community Living Program (1994) and past group members of the WWILD SVP (Spork, 1994, pp. 11-14):

    '(I’m) someone who takes a while to learn things.'

    'I think it’s being slow, and they think very simple.'

    'I have a learning difficulty and am no different from you. I can be hurt and I can be happy.'

    'Sometimes you can’t even see the disability inside you. You can’t tell.'

Somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of people with an intellectual disability are in the 55-70 IQ range, otherwise known as the ‘mild’ intellectual disability group. ‘Mild’, however, is an unfortunate term that minimises the seriousness and challenges of living with intellectual disability (M. O’Connor, personal communication, 28 April 2011).

Identifying intellectual disability


There is currently no systematic identification of people with intellectual disability in the justice system at any of the usual entry points (such as Legal Aid, Corrective Services, police, courts or other agencies).


As a result, many people with intellectual disability are not recognised as having a disability and miss out on relevant protections of the law, diversions from the criminal justice system and other appropriate assistance.

To ensure that people with intellectual disability receive appropriate support and have access to justice (either as a victim or an offender), it is critical that their intellectual disability be identified as early as possible.


When lawyers and other legal professionals are skilled in identifying intellectual disability, they can positively influence the outcomes and experiences of people with intellectual disability in the criminal justice system.

When a person’s intellectual disability is not identified, the consequences are likely to include:


  •     Police interviewing the person with intellectual disability without an independent third person present, as required by the Queensland Police Powers and Responsibilities Act (2000)
  •     Lawyers not using available defences or diversions that would be of great assistance to the person with intellectual disability
  •     Corrective and community services not assisting the person with intellectual disability to access tailored programs designed to assist in rehabilitation.

(Hayes and Bleakley, in MacDonald, 2008)

Several factors can impede the timely identification of the person’s intellectual disability:

  •     The intellectual disability is often not obvious from the person’s appearance, nor from brief contact with them
  •     The person may be adept at hiding their disability and/or deny having one when explicitly asked (out of shame, embarrassment or past negative experiences)
  •     The person may not identify personally as having an intellectual disability
  •     The person may have strong verbal skills and ‘present well’
  •     The person may not have a formal diagnosis
  •     Behaviours that may indicate intellectual disability can be misinterpreted by others – for example, the behaviours can be seen as a bad attitude, as story-telling, or as indicators of guilt. Example behaviours might include aggression, joking, inappropriate behaviour, evasive or inconsistent answers, confabulation, difficulties with time and difficulties sequencing events
  •     The limited ability amongst most members of the community to recognise when a person has an intellectual disability.

Intellectual disability might be indicated by a range of difficulties in a person’s communication, such as:

  •     Having a restricted vocabulary
  •     Being easily distracted
  •     Experiencing difficulty in understanding questions
  •     Responding to questions either inappropriately or with inconsistent answers
  •     Experiencing memory difficulties
  •     Showing difficulty with abstract thinking and reasoning.

If legal professionals suspect that their client has an intellectual disability, it is best to ask the client directly.

If the client does not know or they do not wish to identify with this label, the following questions may assist to develop an understanding:

  •     Where did you go to school?
  •     Did you get any extra help at school?
  •     How are you with reading and writing?
  •     What do you do during the day? Do you go to work?
  •     What types of things do you do for fun? To relax?
  •     Where do you live? Do you live with other people?
  •     Do you get a pension from Centrelink?

Another indicator that a client may have an intellectual disability is the presence of a support person. This person may not readily identify themselves as the client’s support person or support worker out of respect for the client who may have asked them not to do so.


However, it can be helpful to ask the client about the person who is with them and what role that person plays (or how that person helps them).

WWILD Sexual Violence Prevention Program is funded by the Department of Communities, QLD. & the WWILD Victims of Crime Disability Training Program is funded by the Department of Justice and Attorney-General, QLD

WWILD Phone: (07) 3262 9877 Email: Address: 211 Hudson Road, WOOLOOWIN QLD 4030 Contact hours: Monday to Friday 8.30am - 4.30pm