Assisting People with Intellectual Disabilities in an Emergency

Bureau of EMS, Trauma & Preparedness Logo

Pink Flowers - August 2018 Guardian Banner

Assisting People with Intellectual Disabilities in an Emergency

Alice Frame, MA - Disabilities Health Unit Coordinator - MDHHS

Intellectual, also known as cognitive, disabilities are characterized by limited mental and cognitive capacity and processing.  Intellectual disabilities vary widely.  One of the most common examples is Down’s Syndrome. Characteristics of an intellectual disability can include limited vocabulary or speech impairment, difficulty understanding or answering questions, and a short attention span.

There are differences between intellectual and developmental disabilities. Developmental disability is an umbrella term that includes intellectual disabilities as well as other conditions that develop in childhood. Not all developmental disabilities are also intellectual disabilities. For example, conditions like autism and cerebral palsy are developmental disabilities that may or may not also be intellectual disabilities, depending on the person. Do not assume that someone has an intellectual disability just because they have a developmental disability.

Communicating with individuals with intellectual disabilities can be challenging, but there are strategies to help do so effectively:

  • When assisting someone with an intellectual disability, introduce yourself and explain that you are there to help.
  • Always show the person your picture ID. If you look different than in the picture, explain why.  This could be something as simple as a new hair cut or that you are wearing a HAZMAT suit.
  • Speak in short, simple sentences and use pictures or objects to illustrate the point whenever possible.
  • Avoid overwhelming the individual. Only give necessary information and break instructions into smaller parts.
  • Avoid leaving the individual alone, if possible.  People with intellectual disabilities may wander and become lost.

Severity of intellectual disability exists on a range. Regardless of any disability they may or may not have, ask first to gauge their ability.