Developmental Disabilities

Spec Ed 1 & 2: Students and Developmental Disabilities

Developmental Disabilities Association Promotional Video

What is a developmental disability?

Developmental delay is defined as a condition which represents a significant delay in the process of development. The presence of developmental delay is an indication that the process of development is significantly affected, and that without special intervention it is likely that the child’s ability to attain normal developmental milestones and educational performance at school would be jeopardized.

Three inter-related factors describe the exceptionality:

1. Sub-average intellectual functioning – IQ text score 85 and below as cutoff for identification of “mentally retarded”

2. Problems in adaptive behavior –ability to meet the demands made by environment

3. Both of the above occurring during the developmental period – period up to 18 years

More precisely these children have skills deficits including specific delays in language, perception, meta-cognition, and social, emotional and/or motor development.

The causes of developmental disabilities are varied and remain unknown in a large proportion of cases. Often the known causes are grouped into two categories:

1. Genetic - harmful individual genes and aberrant chromosomes

2. Environmental - including physical hazards before, during and after birth, as well as adverse domestic and social circumstances

Misconceptions About Developmental Disabilities

The following are some common misconceptions about people with developmental disabilities:

  1. A developmental disability is a condition like an illness
  2. Having a developmental disability puts a cap on learning
  3. The disabilities occur equally across class and gender
  4. Developmental and intellectual disabilities are reflected in physical appearance
  5. Students with intellectual and developmental problems always learn more when they are included with/separated from other students
  6. A low IQ test score is evidence of at least borderline disability and below normal adaptive skills
  7. Students with intellectual or developmental disabilities are always compliant/difficult

How is a developmental disability diagnosed?

For a child to be diagnosed with a developmental disability, a full assessment includes:

  • medical assessment (performed by the child's doctor)
  • developmental history (prenatal/birth history, development and health history)
  • cognitive assessment (Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children, WISC-IV)
  • adaptive functioning evaluation (a survey for families and teachers)
  • observation (direct observations of the child in different contexts)
  • OSR review (documentation of learning, social, and communication challenges)

Students with DD are identified under the intellectual category of exceptionalities.

What does programming and assessment/evaluation look like?

These children have needs beyond the scope of the Ontario curriculum, so they have IEPs that are built around the alternative curriculum, which emphasize:

  • developing communicative, cognitive, personal life management and academic abilities
  • developing leisure skills
  • facilitating the transition to other learning, community, or work settings

Assessment strategies for students with developmental disabilities include:

  • anecdotal notes (time logs, conference records)
  • checklists (rating scales, rubrics, task analysis)
  • portfolios (samples of oral, written, visual, kinesthetic learning)
  • communication book with families

Predominantly, students with developmental disabilities are placed in full-time or part-time contained classrooms to meet their individual learning needs.

What is the Alternative Curriculum?

Examples of Class Activities

What Is The Learning Environment Like for Students with DD?

  • Often one-to-one or one teacher/teaching assistant to a small number of students
  • Requires teamwork on behalf of the teacher and his/her team of teaching assistants

A typical DD class may include the following:

  • Calendar and day schedule
  • Large print for posters and displays
  • Labels
  • Pictures and visuals
  • Computers
  • Sensory toys or objects (ie. noise makers, fibre optic lights, toys of different textures, etc)
  • Slant boards/desks
  • Gym mats for students with limited mobility to sit on
  • Modified desks for wheelchairs to fit underneath
  • Lifts and slings for students in wheelchairs
  • Changing room for privacy during personal care of medically fragile students
  • Changing tables and modified toilets


Assessment Accommodations:

  • extended time limits to complete work/ extra time for processing
  • verbatim scribing
  • oral responses
  • alternative settings
  • more frequent breaks
  • assistive devices or adaptive equipment

Instructional Accommodations:

  • reinforcement incentives
  • high structure (regularized routines and expectations)
  • partnering
  • assistive technology
  • graphic organizers
  • non-verbal signals
  • organizational coaching
  • more frequent breaks
  • concrete/hands-on materials (puzzles, games)
  • gesture/visual cues
  • large size font
  • colour coding
  • computer options
  • "drill" and repetition of information
  • extra processing time


  • strategic seating
  • reduction of audio/visual stimuli
  • minimize background noise
  • alternative workspace
  • See "What is the Learning Environment like for DD Students?"

Classroom Strategies

  1. maintain a positive attitude
  2. teamwork between the teacher and teaching assistants
  3. collaboration between the school, teacher, and parents
  4. structured environment- familiarity does NOT breed contempt, It equals comfort.
  5. "drill" and repetition in a motivating manner (puzzles, games, activities)
  6. take advantage of technology (ie. Raz-kids)

Images From a Medically Fragile Secondary School Classroom

Jays Anthem: an example of one creative way to supplement the alternative program

Applewood School is a secondary school for students who have developmental disabilities. These students, many of whom are nonverbal, signed the American and Canadian national anthems using a dramatized form of American Sign Language (ASL). The national anthems opened the baseball game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox on May 1, 2013. Applewood students were accompanied by staff and students from Stephen Lewis Secondary School.
Jays Anthem

Resources and Community Agencies

There are many resources and community agencies available to students with developmental disabilities and their families. Here are just a few of them.

Resources for Educators and Parents:

Community Agencies and Support:

The Great Inclusion Debate

DEBATE TOPIC: Should DD students be integrated into the regular classroom or should they be in contained in alternative settings?

Notion: DD students’ educational needs are best met in a regular classroom environment.

Group 1 - support the notion of regular class for DD students

Group 2 - oppose the notion of regular class for DD students

People needed from each group:

1st speaker

2nd speaker

2 Rebutters

Time keeper – one from each group

One moderator/ chairperson to keep the flow of debate (independent)

Each group has 2 minutes preparation time

Group 1 –support notion 90sec (1st speaker)

Group 2 rebuttal 60sec (1st rebutter)

Group 1 – support notion 90sec (2nd speaker)

Group 2 rebuttal 60sec (2nd rebutter)

Group 2 disprove notion 90sec (1st speaker)

Group 1 rebuttal 60sec (1st rebutter)

Group 2 disprove notion 90sec (2nd speaker)

Group 1 rebuttal 60sec (2nd rebutter)

Each group 1 and 2 final summary supporting or opposing the notion 60sec. ( 1st speaker)