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What Is Considered a Moderate Disability?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 7.3 million students received services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 2021-22. Approximately 6% of these students were identified with an intellectual disability, or what the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR) refers to formally as “intellectual developmental disorder.” Of those identified as having an intellectual disability, roughly 10% have what is considered a moderate intellectual disability.

Understanding what constitutes moderate intellectual disability and how to design and provide services for people identified with this level of disability is critical for educators interested in working with students with exceptionalities. The online Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Moderate Disabilities program from Worcester State University provides degree candidates with the advanced study needed to be effective in this vital component of the educational system.

What Are the Categories of Cognitive Impairment?

There are generally considered four categories of cognitive impairment or intellectual disability: mild, moderate, severe, and profound disability. HealthyPlace identifies attributes of these levels of intellectual disabilities as follows:

  1. Mild intellectual 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 intellectual disability is defined as observable developmental delays, which may be accompanied by physical impairments. Individuals with moderate intellectual disability possess basic communication skills and can maintain self-care, often with some degree of support.
  3. Those with a severe intellectual disability exhibit considerable developmental delays. They may understand others’ verbal communications but will have minimal ability to communicate themselves. They may learn routines and basic self-care but need direct supervision and support in social situations.
  4. Profound intellectual 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.

Defining Moderate Intellectual Disability

Students with moderate intellectual disabilities face a range of challenges both inside and outside academic environments. Traditionally, an IQ test was a required part of the diagnosis process, and the IQ of students identified with moderate disability typically ranged from 35 to 49. However, the focus of the DSM-5-TR diagnosis of intellectual disability shifted, placing more emphasis on conceptual, social, and practical adaptive functioning as well as the level and kind of intervention needed. The degree of cognitive impairment is still a consideration, but, as the American Psychiatric Association explains, “the IQ score must be interpreted in the context of the person’s difficulties in general mental abilities.”

Individuals with moderate intellectual disabilities can present a wide range of learning exceptionalities. They may show delays or difficulties in a range of skill areas like literacy, communication, motor coordination, numeracy, and social-emotional development.

More specific examples of the academic and behavior characteristics of students with moderate intellectual 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 learned generality 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, or emotional disturbance that requires additional accommodations for continued success in the classroom and beyond.

The Impact of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) — a developmental and neurological disorder or presentation of neurodivergence that may accompany the presence of a moderate intellectual disability — can also impact communication, social interactions, and behavior. Symptoms of ASD 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 the individual. Logically, the support an individual with ASD might need could be quite different if there is a co-occurrence of moderate intellectual disability. Regardless, those with ASD may require a substantial support system, as they may lack social skills and have difficulty with 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 ASD diagnosis create a lifeline, as they help with daily support and positively impact their futures.

Preparing to Work With Students With Moderate Disabilities

The M.Ed. in Moderate Disabilities online program at Worcester State University prepares educators to work with and meet the needs of students in all grade levels with moderate intellectual disabilities. Graduates of the degree program understand how to “cultivate the literacy development and communication skills of those with exceptionalities, helping them to live enriched, successful lives.”

Coursework in the M.Ed. in Moderate Disabilities program examines how 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, curriculum development, differentiated instruction methods, and inclusive classroom strategies will prepare educators 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.

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