Defining Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities for Minnesota Inclusive Higher Education

Understanding intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) is crucial to ensuring students with IDD have access to inclusive higher education options in Minnesota. The terminology regarding disabilities across K-12 education, state laws, federal laws, and social service agencies can vary. This resource was created to summarize the different disability definitions to clarify for postsecondary education staff, prospective students, families, and educators.

Developmental disabilities is the umbrella term for disabilities that encompass both physical and cognitive differences occurring before the age of 22. Intellectual disability is a subcategory of developmental disabilities that doesn't include strictly physical differences. Intellectual and developmental disabilities are when an individual has co-occurring disabilities, such as Down syndrome and congenital hearing loss.

Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD) is the term often used to describe situations in which intellectual disability and other disabilities are present. For instance, approximately 30 percent of individuals with autism spectrum disorder and 30 percent of individuals with cerebral palsy have an intellectual disability in addition to a developmental disability. While there is no precise data, some individuals with a traumatic brain injury also have an intellectual disability.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) includes this definition of a student with an intellectual disability , which means a student:

  1. With a cognitive impairment characterized by significant limitations in
    1. Intellectual and cognitive functioning, and
    2. Adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social, and practical adaptive skills; and
  2. Who is currently, or was formerly, eligible for special education and related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (20 U.S.C. 1401), including a student who was determined eligible for special education or related services under the IDEA but was home-schooled or attended private school.

The HEOA definition is based on the definition of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD).

Some examples of intellectual disabilities include Down Syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and Williams syndrome. Current estimates suggest two to three percent of children in the United States have an intellectual disability.

Minnesota Special Education Categorical Disabilities

In Minnesota, there are 13 disability categories used to qualify a student for special education services. IDD is not a categorical label used in Minnesota, a fact that can confuse the understanding of which students have an intellectual and developmental disability and are prospective students for inclusive higher education. Every student's disabilities present differently. In some circumstances, a student with IDD may have a different special education disability category listed on their individualized education plan (IEP) than those listed below. Typically, students with IDD have an IEP identifying their primary disability in one of three categories:

  1. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  2. Developmental Cognitive Disability (DCD)
  3. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

The Individualized Education Program (IEP) team identifies the primary and secondary disability categories within a student's IEP. In cases where a student has multiple disabilities, the IEP team determines the most significant disability category based on its perceived impact on the student's educational performance. Categories such as Deaf/Hard of Hearing, Severely Multiply Impaired, Other Health Disabilities, Blind/Low Vision, and Physically Impaired may be designated primary or secondary disabilities on an IEP for students with IDD.

The Minnesota Inclusive Higher Education Technical Assistance Center believes IDD is the most inclusive disability definition for students pursuing inclusive higher education, consistent with the HEOA definition of an intellectual disability. Every student with IDD should have the choice to pursue a postsecondary education.

—Compiled from the Higher Education Opportunity Act, the Minnesota Department of Education, Minnesota Statutes, OMB guidance, the Administration for Community Living website, and the AAIDD website by the Minnesota Inclusive Higher Education Technical Assistance Center, 2024.