People who suffer intellectual disability – either from birth or as a result of trauma in life such as an accident or illness – are often put through the compounded difficulty of learning in the conventional scholastic way. Naturally, their abilities to concentrate, comprehend and keep up to speed are compromised.

But learning is an inalienable right, and a joy for many with ID. Learning creates goals, stimulates interaction, engenders a sense of achievement. And education helps people to become better than they are, more focused and engaged; it gives them opportunities to explore broader options for undertaking valuable contributory work.

ID, Adulthood and Learning

Identified during childhood, ID has an ongoing impact on an individual’s development in every way. It can be defined as a significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information, learn new skills, cope independently, or engage effectively in the social arena.

Some people may suffer severe impact on intellectual, social and other functional abilities – while others may only experience mild impairment – and therefore be capable of developing adequate living skills and relatively independent adult lives.

Either way, the difficulties that arise to impair an ID individual’s place in normal daily life and learning, are manifest: difficulty in understanding new information; difficulties with communication and social skills; slow cognitive processing time; difficulty in the sequential processing of information; difficulties comprehending abstract concepts; difficulties with self-determination skills, problem-solving, and goal setting.

Independence and self-reliance should always be the primary goal of all educational strategy when working with students with intellectual disabilities. With this in mind, additional areas for teaching should include: money concepts, time concepts, independent living skills, self-care and hygiene, community access, leisure activities, and vocational training.

Useful strategies for teaching students with ID

Despite difficulties in a learning environment, students with ID can and do, have the capacity to successfully acquire new information. Here are some useful tips you can pick and choose according to your students and their situations:

  • Provide an outline of what will be taught, and highlight key concepts; this will provide opportunities to practise new skills and concepts ahead of time.
  • Provide reading lists well before the start of a course so that reading can begin early.
  • Provide guidance to key texts. Begin with the study of a few texts rather than a broad study of many. Teach one concept or activity component at a time to support memorising and sequencing; as the student masters one component of the task, another can be added to the routine.
  • Use as many verbal descriptions as possible to supplement material presented on blackboard or overhead.
  • Use clear, succinct, straightforward language.
  • Reinforce learning by using real-life examples and environments.
  • Present information in a range of formats – handouts, worksheets, overheads, videos – to meet a diversity of learning styles.
  • Use a variety of teaching methods so that students are not constrained by needing to acquire information by reading only. Where possible, present material diagrammatically – in lists, flow charts, concept maps, etc.
  • Keep diagrams uncluttered and use colour wherever appropriate to distinguish and highlight.
  • Ensure that lists of technical/professional jargon which students will need to learn are available early in the course.
  • Students will be more likely to follow the sequence of material in a lecture correctly if they are able to listen to the material more than once. Wherever possible, ensure that key statements and instructions are repeated or highlighted in some way.
  • Students will need extra time in an examination for reading and analysing questions and for planning their answers. Some students will request that examination questions be read to them. And some may prefer to dictate their answers to a scribe.
  • Teach students in small groups, or one-on-one, if possible.

The story of Sunfield Home

Twenty years ago, 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. 

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