What Is Considered a Moderate Disability?

In the 2015-2016 school year, of the more than six million students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, approximately 425,000 were students identified with a cognitive impairment or intellectual disability. Of those, approximately 10% were considered moderately disabled.

What Are the Categories of Cognitive Impairment?

There are four categories of cognitive impairment or intellectual disability, according to experts: mild, moderate, severe and profound disability.

  1. Mild disability is marked by the ability to learn practical life skills, blend in socially, attain reading and math skills up to grade level 3-6, be functional in daily life, and have no observable physical signs of disability.
  2. Moderate disability is defined as observable delays in the development of speech or motor skills, which may be accompanied by physical impairments. Individuals with moderate disability possess basic communication skills and are able to maintain self-care.
  3. Those with a severe disability may understand others’ verbal communications, but will have little ability to communicate themselves. They can learn routines and basic self-care, but need support in social situations.
  4. Profound disability is defined by an inability to live independently and a need for round-the-clock supervision. Self-care is done with support and there may be the presence of congenital abnormalities (Healthy Place).

Defining Moderate Disability

Students with moderate disabilities face a range of challenges both inside and outside academic environments. They typically have an IQ of between 36 and 49, present a wide range of generalized learning exceptionalities and may exhibit delays or difficulties in the development of “basic literacy and numeracy, language and communication, mobility and leisure skills, motor co-ordination and social and personal development,” according to the National Council for Special Education.

More specific examples of the academic and behavior characteristics of students with moderate disabilities include:

  • Delays in reaching developmental milestones, like verbal and communication skills, proficiency in math or science, mobility benchmarks, navigating social situations, and personal development.
  • Difficulty in school concentrating on a specific task for an extended period of time.
  • An inability to apply a generality that they have learned to a specific situation or a particular example, or to understand abstract concepts.
  • The need to process information with one of the five senses at a time.

In addition, these individuals may have an accompanying hearing, visual or other physical impairment, delayed or impaired communication skills, physical impairment or emotional disturbance that requires additional accommodations for continued success in the classroom and beyond.

The Impact of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder, an impairment that may accompany the presence of a moderate disability, also impacts communication, social interactions and behavior. Autism symptoms are usually first seen when children are young, and will most likely continue throughout their lifetimes. Individuals diagnosed with autism vary widely in their skill levels and ability to communicate and interact with others.

There are varying levels of support needed, depending on which of the three functional levels of autism the individual falls, according to Verywell Health. Those with moderate autism require a substantial support system, as they lack social skills and have limited communication and interaction outside of their comfort zone. Providing support to those with an autism diagnosis has a long-lasting impact on their prospects for leading a successful life. Educational, behavioral and family therapies can greatly influence the individual’s ability to communicate more deeply and effectively, adapt to various social situations, learn new skills, and gain coping mechanisms that may reduce distress in new environments.

Those who advocate for and instruct students with an autism diagnosis create a lifeline, as they help with daily support and positively impact their futures.

Preparing to Work with Students With Moderate Disabilities

The Master of Education in Moderate Disabilities online program at Worcester State University prepares you to work with and meet the needs of students in all grade levels with moderate disabilities. The Master of Education in Moderate Disabilities program at Worcester State University helps you “learn to cultivate the literacy development and communication skills of those with exceptionalities, helping them to live enriched, successful lives”.

Coursework in Worcester State’s online Master of Education in Moderate Disabilities program teaches you to address the physical, cognitive, behavioral and psychological aspects of teaching to and advocating for those who fall under the categories of cognitive disability. It also examines laws and regulations impacting those with a moderate disability. Becoming familiar with theoretical frameworks, assistive technologies, and curriculum and classroom strategies will prepare you to address the individual’s unique needs and help them achieve the best outcome for an enriching life.

Learn more about Worcester State University’s online Master of Education in Moderate Disabilities program.


Mental Disorders and Disabilities Among Low-Income Children: Classifications of Intellectual Disability Severity

Healthy Place: Mild, Moderate, Severe Intellectual Disability Differences

National Council for Special Education: Moderate General Learning Disability

Special Education Guide: What Special Education Teachers Do

Differentiating Science Instruction and Assessment for Learners with Special Needs, K-9: Collaborating to Teach Students with Mild to Moderate Disabilities in the Inclusion Classroom

Verywell Health: An Overview of Autism

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