Individuals with Disabilities

This page describes some of the first aid challenges to take into account when working with people who have physical, mental, sensory, and emotional disabilities. Often existing conditions can complicate assessment and hamper your attempts to provide care.

Mental Illness

Mental illness is any of several medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning.

Mental illnesses can affect persons of any age, race, religion, or income. Mental illnesses are not the result of personal weakness, lack of character, or poor upbringing. Mental illnesses are treatable.

Serious mental illnesses include autism, eating disorders, major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and borderline personality disorder. Most people diagnosed with a serious mental illness can experience relief from their symptoms by actively participating in an individual treatment plan.

In a first aid situation, patients with mental illness may experience anger, anxiety, or sadness that seems out of place given their condition or complaint. They may also lack orientation, meaning that they are confused about things like who and where they are.

Approach disoriented or irrational patients carefully. Stress that you want to help and watch to see if your presence and actions calm the patient. If, at any point, the patient appears paranoid or violent, retreat to a safe distance and call for assistance.

Intellectual Disabilities

Intellectual disability (ID), once called mental retardation, is characterized by below-average mental ability and a lack of skills necessary for day-to-day living. People with intellectual disabilities can and do learn new skills, but they learn them more slowly. There are varying degrees of intellectual disability, from mild to profound.

Intelligence can be measured by an IQ (intelligence quotient) test. The average IQ is 100. A person is considered intellectually disabled if he or she has an IQ of less than about 75.

Common causes of intellectual disability include:

  • Genetic conditions, such as Down syndrome and fragile X syndrome
  • Problems during pregnancy that interfere with fetal brain development, including the mother’s use of drugs or alcohol, fetal malnutrition, or certain conditions like infection or preeclampsia
  • Problems during childbirth that cause the baby to be deprived of oxygen or be born extremely premature
  • Illness (e.g., meningitis, whooping cough, or measles) or injury (e.g., near- drowning, exposure to toxins, extreme malnutrition, head injury, or abuse/neglect)

In first aid situations, patients with an intellectual disability may be fearful and distrustful. They may not understand what has happened to them or how you are planning to help. They may not be able to give consent or assist in their own care.

When asking for consent or giving instructions, speak in direct, simple terms. Establish trust through your actions. Comfort and reassure the patient.

Sensory Disabilities

Patients with sensory impairments, such as blindness or deafness,