Intellectual disability is a developmental disorder that begins in childhood and is generally understood to limit a person’s ability to reason and learn. Without considerable support intellectually disabled people may struggle to achieve the normal functions in life that other people take for granted. In the past, because the disability is linked to impairment in cognitive functioning, people with these limitations were seen in a negative light.

Today, however, we have much greater insight, and with researched and strategic support, the intellectually disabled are now given the care and consideration that enables them to cope with life more effectively. With new enlightened approaches, we have established that if given the right help for their individual conditions, intellectually disabled people can function far more effectively in all aspects of life.

A brief history of treatment development

But looking at the history of how intellectually disabled people have been treated, we can firstly be horrified by our lack of empathy and ignorant assumptions, and secondly by our archaic and cruel treatments dreamt up by people who usually assumed the devil was responsible, or that the afflicted person had done something bad.

  • Some of the very first references to intellectual disability date back to the ancient Egyptians, where this concept is mentioned in the Papyrus of Thebes over 3500 years ago. The ancient Romans and Greeks believed that children were born with intellectual disability because the gods were angry. Many of these children were simply left to die in the wild as a result.
  • Depending on society’s viewpoint, intellectual disability may be differently classified. One culture may classify one kind of behaviour as a disability, while another culture may not. Prior to the 1700s, those with mild intellectual disability may not have been viewed any differently from anyone else, at least not in the legal or clinical sense. Those with severe intellectual disabilities were sometimes thought of as people who could receive divine revelation. Other less fortunate individuals were sometimes put into cages in town centres under the official justification that they were being kept out of trouble.
  • By the late 1700s and early 1800s more intentional and suitable forms of interventions for people with intellectual disabilities began. By the end of the 19th century, this preferred rehabilitative approach was adopted but in a restrictive manner, placing people with disabilities in special institutions where they were prevented from interacting with society.
  • In the next 50 years, there was massive growth in these kinds of institutions lasting as late as the early 1960s. At this time more modern approaches began to place significant emphasis on educational development, downsizing the number of institutions and placing more responsibility and care in the hands of the parents.
  • The last two decades of the 20th century, saw the rise of a well-received self-help and self-advocacy movement – and a new way of thinking about intellectual disability began to emerge. Focus shifted from intellectual disability being considered a problem within a person…to looking at the interaction between the person and the environment. Methods to empathically enhance the personal capacity of each individual, as well as providing focused support, were developed.
  • The purpose is to make the disability as irrelevant as possible with regard to how people perceive themselves, and to rather focus on how they want to react and engage with the world. People are enabled and encouraged to embrace their diversity with a sense of pride, and are thus able to achieve more.

The work is still not done

The fight to create support systems for people has changed significantly from the 1800s to today. But knowing this history is only half the battle. There is always room for learning and improving knowledge of the very varied and individual conditions that we lump under the term: intellectual disability.

  • We need to focus on how we can enable and promote independence.
  • We need to find ways to enable and not exclude people with intellectual disabilities.
  • We need to understand that the same issues that have driven virtually every civil rights movement in the last decades, also pertain to people with intellectual disabilities.
  • So much about the history of disability is about viewing people with disabilities as different, and that view has always implied inferiority. The fight today is still about the rights of all people to live self-determined lives free of discrimination based on other people’s perceptions.

The story of Sunfield Home

Chris and Lynne Bennett, parents of a young girl with Down Syndrome, pursued their dream of establishing a home for their daughter and other intellectually disabled young adults in the Western Cape. Together with other parents, they founded the Sunfield Home in Wellington, providing a loving and nurturing environment for over 100 residents and day-care adult individuals.

Each individual is screened to evaluate their strengths and allocate activities according to their abilities. A protective workshop has been established where contract work is undertaken, as well as arts and crafts activities. An employment scheme has also been developed and as a result permanent and successful positions have been found within the surrounding wine and cheese industries.

Find out more about us at: www.sunfieldhome.co.za

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