About us | Contact us | Press | Site Map

Home : Disability basics : Information on specific disabilities :

Fact Sheet: Mental Retardation


People with mental retardation develop at a below average rate and experience difficulty with learning and social adjustment.


Research indicates that between 1% - 2% of the U.S. population experiences some form of mental retardation.

Basic Criteria

Mental retardation is a very broad category that includes a wide range of skills, abilities and support needs.


Most individuals with mental retardation are in the mild to moderate range.

Learning Characteristics of a Person with Mental Retardation

Persons with mental retardation have the capacity to learn, to develop, and to grow. The great majority of these individuals can become productive and full participants in society. However, they do face challenges in learning. A person with mental retardation tends to have one or more of the following characteristics:

  1. Slow rate of learning

    - Person has the ability to learn, but takes longer to do so
  2. Thinks in a concrete way

    - Has difficulty with abstract thinking
  3. Difficulties generalizing

    - Cannot take knowledge learned in one situation and apply it to another
  4. Needs to be taught how to make choices

    - Has difficulty weighing pros and cons, and applying past experiences to present decision-making
  5. Challenges in setting goals and problem solving

    - Needs help to figure out problems and determine steps required to reach goals. Tasks that many people learn without instruction may need to be structured or broken down into small steps.
  6. Memory problems

    - Has difficulty remembering how to complete tasks that take several steps, or that are not routine; training needs to include lots of opportunities for practice and repetition.
  7. Short attention span

    - Has trouble sticking with an activity or focusing attention for long periods of time
  8. Expressive language

    - Has difficulty conveying ideas and feelings to other people; explaining that he/she doesnt understand something; and asking questions


American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR)

444 N. Capitol Street N.W.; Suite 846
Washington, DC 20001-1512
Voice: (202) 387-1968; (800) 424-3688
Fax: (202) 387-2193
Web site:

The Arc of the United States (formerly the Association for Retarded Citizens)

1010 Wayne Avenue, Suite 650
Silver Spring, MD 20910
500 East Border Street; Suite 300
Arlington, TX 76010
Voice: (301) 565-3842
Fax: (301) 565-5342
Web site:

National Down Syndrome Congress

7000 Peachtree-Dunwoody Road, N.E.
Lake Ridge 400 Office Park; Building #5, Suite 100
Atlanta, GA 30328
Voice: (770) 604-9500; (800) 232-6372
Fax: (770) 604-9898
Web site:

National Down Syndrome Society

666 Broadway, 8th Floor
New York, NY 10012
Voice: (212) 460-9330; (800) 221-4602
Fax: (212) 979-2873
Web site:

Self Advocates Becoming Empowered

P.O. Box 105CI
New Fairfield, CT 06812
Web site:
National self-advocacy organization. Self-advocacy is the name commonly given to the movement of people with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities who speak up for themselves and make their own decisions. Terms often connected with this evolving initiative are increased control, empowerment, and self-determination. Many trainings, support groups, and other opportunities are available.
A self-advocacy bibliography is available at:

Printable version

Rate Article

Related articles

People with cognitive disabilities -- basic etiquette