Teaching people with intellectual disabilities

A developmental disability occurs when a child does not meet the developmental milestones expected for his or her age. Developmental milestones include walking, talking, smiling, playing and learning to read. Some children may be delayed in their development but catch up with their peers later. When this occurs, the child is said to have a developmental delay. However, when a child is consistently delayed and does not catch up with the milestones of peers, a developmental disability is the term used.  

The most common developmental disabilities are autism, cerebral palsy, and intellectual disability (the term “intellectual disability” is used to refer to mental retardation and other disabilities that affect intellectual functioning). Autism primarily affects the way a person plays, communicates, and perceives the world. Cerebral palsy usually affects a person’s motor skills, such as sitting, walking, and feeding oneself. Intellectually disability affects a person’s ability to acquire new information and understand concepts like reading, writing, or using math. Often there is an overlap in the type of developmental disability a person has.

Following are ways that people learn:

  • Reading
  • Watching
  • Talking
  • Listening
  • Touching
  • Doing
  • Role Playing
Learning styles
People with intellectual disabilities have a variety of ways they learn new concepts, including listening to an instructor’s presentation, watching DVDs, looking at pictures, and using props.

For example, when teaching participants how to get low and go to escape a room full of smoke, the instructor should do the following:

  • Talk about getting low and going to escape a room full of smoke.
  • Show pictures of someone getting low and going to escape a room full of smoke and finding the door to the outside.
  • Have participants talk about getting low and going to escape a room full of smoke.
  • Have participants demonstrate getting low and going and finding the doorway to the outside.

There are several things to keep in mind when teaching fire safety classes:

  • Treat all adults like adults. Adults with developmental disabilities are adults and should never be treated like big children.
  • Never assume the new information has been learned until a participant demonstrates an understanding of the new information.
  • Use People-first language, i.e., “people with disabilities, people who are blind, children who have autism.”
  • Understand your audience, their abilities, and preferred learning styles. Remember, it is common for a person with a developmental disability to have more than one disability.
  • Work slowly. Although you could easily speed through a lesson in 15 minutes, don’t! Take time to explore each picture, idea, and conversation.
  • Limit the number of people in class to around eight students. Small group sizes work best.
  • Introduce one topic at a time.
  • Keep it simple. Stick with simple words. Have the students describe the pictures for clarity and understanding.
  • Repeat each message several times. Students tend to remember what they see and hear at the beginning of each topic if it is repeated again at the end.
  • Limit class length to one hour.
  • Demonstrate. Have students demonstrate what they know. Students may act as though they understand by smiling and nodding, but that does not mean they are learning.
  • Use incentives, such as night lights, egg timers, and oven mitts, as teaching tools. Students like to have something to take with them. It not only increases attendance, but reinforces lessons learned.
Community outreach sources
Training can take place in group homes, day programs for people with developmental disabilities, churches, fire stations, recreation centers, or wherever fire safety classes are taught. If you do not know where the group homes or day programs are located, go to your state’s developmental disabilities website for locations in your community.