Thought Leadership

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Intellectual Disability Awareness Month

March 20 2018 By Justene Smith

Of every one thousand people living in South Africa (and our population is over 55.91 million), 25 have an IQ between 50 and 80. Yet, we know very little about Intellectual Disability. The month of March is dedicated to bringing awareness to Intellectual Disability, a subject often plagued by stereotypes, misconception and misunderstanding.

Justene Smith, Disability expert at Progression, unpacks Intellectual Disability, common stereotypes surrounding this topic and the important role of Early Childhood Development.

What is Intellectual Disability?

Intellectual Disability is characterised by a low IQ level, significant limitations in intellectual functioning (reasoning, learning, problem solving) as well as the ability to adapt or relate to the surrounding world to the same extent as others. It is usually diagnosed before the age of 18 and is lifelong.

There are various causes of Intellectual Disability however, doctors find a specific reason in only 25% of cases. Some of these causes include chromosomal abnormalities such as Down Syndrome, trauma that occurs before or after birth, malnutrition as well as various childhood diseases such as whooping cough, chicken pox and measles, which may lead to meningitis and encephalitis potentially damaging the brain.

Increased Risk in South Africa

 Children growing up in poverty are at higher risk for malnutrition, childhood diseases, exposure to environmental health hazards and often receive inadequate health care. These factors increase the risk of intellectual disability. This is very concerning, considering that 55% of the South African population live in poverty.

In addition to inadequate health care in South Africa, we also have a lack of good quality educational facilities. This year alone, over 40 000 children in Gauteng and Western Cape were rejected from grade 1 as space in public schools is limited. The number of children not attending school is even higher in the rural areas of South Africa. Research suggests that such under-stimulation can result in irreversible damage and can serve as a cause of Intellectual Disability. 

Thus, the importance of Early Childhood Development (ECD) cannot be stressed enough. Although ECD can't cure Intellectual Disabilities, it provides children with Intellectual Disabilities with the ability to learn. Stimulating children with Intellectual Disabilities is very important as it encourages learning, prepares them and gives them better prospects for the future.

Unfortunately, 47% of children aged 0 - 6 do not receive early childhood learning according to the Statistician-General's report.

Progression is proud to have partnered with Siyakwazi, an NPO that provides ECD programmes to the community of the Ugu District in KZN. You can support and learn more about Siyakwazi through their website https://siyakwazi.org

Addressing Stereotypes

The first stereotype that needs to be addressed is the assumption that learning disabilities and Intellectual Disabilities are the same thing. This is not true. In short, learning disabilities are normally more specific to a certain area of learning, for example a person with Dyslexia experiences difficulty when it comes to letters. On the other hand, people with Intellectual Disabilities have difficulty understanding and learning as a whole.

Secondly, many people wrongly believe that people with Intellectual Disabilities are not able to contribute or play a meaningful role in an organisation. In South Africa, only 1.2% of the workforce are people with disabilities (according to the 16th Commission for Employment Equity Annual Report) in comparison with the Employment Equity target for employment of persons with disability, which is 2%. People with Intellectual Disabilities are among this group who experience extreme exclusion from the open labour market.

Gaining a matric qualification for people with Intellectual Disabilities can be very difficult. This limits them in terms of work opportunities even further, as having a matric is an entry level requirement for most organisations.

However, there are various tasks that people with Intellectual Disabilities can successfully carry out. People with Intellectual Disabilities would be successful in production, warehousing, manufacturing and even hospitality, where tasks are mostly practical and straightforward. Roles that are very structured, routine orientated and practical would be ideal for people with Intellectual Disabilities.

It is often found that many of these above-mentioned roles and tasks do not require a matric qualification. Thus, we encourage corporates to consider people who do not have a matric. This would open so many doors for people with disabilities in terms of entering the South African labour market.

During this Intellectual Disabilities Awareness Month, Progression encourages corporate South Africa to prioritise job creation for persons with Intellectual Disability and to create an open labour market that is inclusive and accessible to all South Africans, including those with disabilities.

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