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Physical and intellectual disability are broad categories that comprise a wide range of conditions. However, these two types of disability are very different. While physical disability is pretty standard, learning how to approach someone with an intellectual handicap can be intimidating. Dealing with the latter requires a clear understanding of the condition and an open mind.

This blog post will discuss the key differences between physical and intellectual disabilities. But let’s first quickly describe the two. 

Physical Disability Versus Intellectual Disability

A physical disability is a condition that inhibits physical functioning, mobility, agility, or stamina. It can be tactile, visual, or aural.

In contrast, an intellectual disability is a cognitive impairment that impairs a person’s ability to learn and develop new skills.

It may or may not occur with other medical and behavioural abnormalities.

6 Significant Distinctions Between Physical And Intellectual Disabilities

Keep in mind, that like all forms of disability, it exists on a spectrum. Therefore no set of symptoms are identical person-to-person, and some people’s symptoms may manifest in a more severe way, while for others the disability may be barely noticeable. This is why personalised care and support strategies are crucial. 

To help you better understand the two disabilities, below are the fundamental distinctions between them.

Intellectual Disability

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  1. Intellectual disability can develop before age 18 or even at birth. Most instances arise during pregnancy, either as a result of genetics or problems during labour. Other causes, such as severe head injury, infections, or stroke may only impact a child when they are older. 
  1. Intellectual disabilities are not always obvious. People with this disability aren’t all the same. Some have facial features or body motions that indicate a disability, while others do not. For instance, an individual with ADD, ADHD, or bipolar disorder will show no apparent symptoms.
  1. Intellectual disability affects cognitive and adaptive functioning. This may develop in a lack of logical, social, and practical life skill sets. As a result, people with intellectual disabilities need early intervention to learn how to read, reason, communicate, and take care of themselves.
  1. People with intellectual disabilities need consistent and passive monitoring or standby support.
  1. Intellectual disability is a lifelong condition, if not long-term. However, those who are afflicted can flourish with early intervention.
  1. People with intellectual disabilities frequently have a high level of intelligence.

Physical Disability

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  1. Physical disability can happen at any age. It can result from an accident, birth defect, or illness that disrupts the normal functioning of a bodily part.
  1. Physical impairment is easily identifiable. Not only is a body part absent or dysfunctional, but it also limits a person’s movement and agility.
  1. Physical disability can manifest in various ways, including difficulties with mobility, posture, gripping or manipulating items, perception, reflex movements, and autonomic motility like sphincter or intestinal muscles.
  1. People with physical disabilities require more active assistance with eating, bathing, dressing, and getting around. They might also need specialised transportation.
  1. Physical disabilities are not always permanent. Some may be transient.
  1. People with a physical disability don’t necessarily have an intellectual handicap. Most are typically mentally healthy. However, the two can overlap, as some intellectual disabilities manifest in physical symptoms.

Common Stigmas Affecting People With Intellectual And Physical Disabilities

Our society places a strong emphasis on outward appearances. Thus, everyone wants to look what is accepted as ‘normal’ to fit in with their peers. Society at times does not know how to interact with difference, so it may manifest in people with disability being ostracized or distanced in their communities by others without disability. 

People with disabilities, whether physical or intellectual, often have to contend with this kind of discrimination.

Several stereotypes related to disability include the following:

Social Exclusion

People are wary of interacting with or even looking at someone who has a visible handicap. Others assume that people with intellectual disabilities cannot learn new skills or participate in daily activities. Consequently, they are barred from social activities.


Some people think that people with disabilities can’t live fulfilling lives, so they look down on them. In their minds, people with impairments are weak, unable to look after their own needs and make their own decisions.


Misconceptions about their conditions cause society to deny people with disability homes, employment opportunities, public and private access to facilities, and other benefits.

Hate crime

People with disabilities, as well as members of the LGBTQ community and people of colour, are common targets of hate crimes. Sadly, many of these crimes go unreported due to disparities in reporting protocols between jurisdictions. Some victims are unwilling to disclose the incident.

Eliminating Prejudice Against Individuals With Disabilities Through Education

There has been a slow but steady shift away from the negative stereotypes surrounding people with physical and intellectual disabilities, but there is still a long way to go. Even if the law prohibits discrimination based on disability, the stigma will still be widespread if most people are not appropriately educated about the issue.

Education is the best way to change the way most people think about people with different forms of disability. It will be easier to eradicate the negative connotation if we all work together. We can begin by responding to misinformation or negative comments by sharing facts and experiences about disabilities.

Only by raising awareness of the predicament of individuals with disabilities can we overcome the roadblocks. 

Creating Synergies To Assist People With Disabilities

Recognising the discrimination faced by people with disabilities, the NDIA devised a program to support and assist them in leading more fulfilling lives. People with physical or intellectual disabilities can access NDIS disability support services to assist with developing and learning new skills that will allow for better community participation and social inclusion. It could also help a person with a disability find meaningful employment. 

For instance, those with a physical disability can seek support from an NDIS physiotherapist to improve their mobility and independence. It may also be to reduce negative symptoms such as pain and fatigue. On the other hand, NDIS occupational therapists can assist people with intellectual disabilities in developing new skills and participating in daily activities.

People with disability have so much to give, when it comes to enriching their communities. Their disability should never be a barrier for proper social inclusion, meaningful employment and a fulfilling life. A successful community or workplace hinges on diversity, so supporting our peers with disability is crucial.