One of the most difficult areas for accomplishment for those with intellectual disabilities still remains the problem of training for specific skills and finding employment within the scope of that training. Training is determined by various abilities to learn, comprehend and retain knowledge. However, when the barriers to work are reduced, there appear to be a number of careers or specialised areas of employment that people with ID may participate in.

Barriers to be overcome


Training has to be at a level and within the scope of learning of the person with ID. In addition, there must be trainers suitably qualified to present the relevant coursework and required assistance to learning. But even with the right training on offer, there are still financial, transport and job searching difficulties to be overcome.

  • Financial constraints: Very often people with ID do not have the resources to participate in the learning process – from being unable to pay the fees, or transport costs, or access suitable job search programmes. Usually a person who is intellectually disabled has not been able to work and earn money previously – and therefore likely to be able to pay fees for training. In addition, lack of understanding of their conditions often leads to people with ID dropping out of school or various post-schooling programmes – or finding themselves forced to attend courses that are not of their choice.
  • Transport: Getting to and from training venues may be an enormous hurdle in itself. And finally, searching for a job – either through an agency or the internet – requires some communication agility and the ability to read the emotions and expressions of others. Self-presentation in these instances must also be part of the training exercise.
  • Lack of trainers: There is a distinct lack of personnel properly trained to teach those with ID. In most instances, the person with ID is going to need some personal attention, and many do not have the time and patience to handle this extra application without some specific understanding of a range of intellectual disabilities and concomitant learning processes.
  • Lack of training materials: Lack of training materials in Braille and the lack of assistance in the form of special needs teachers is a continuing problem. Family responsibilities may be a drawback as well – with women more likely to report family responsibilities as a barrier than men. In South Africa in particular, barriers continue in the form of: lack of basic education or poor quality education; lack of sign language interpreters; lack of suitably-trained teachers; lack of suitable courses.

Disability prejudice:

The next major difficulty can be the belief that a person with intellectual disability is not capable of handling responsibility at any level. There is a lack of trust. It is often the most frequently mentioned barrier.

However, despite this, there are a number of areas of engagement possible, granted some of which are in line with traditional assumptions of ‘work disabled people can do’. Nevertheless, there are many other opportunities indicating that such stereotypes are mistaken and misleading. Work can encompass: sign language instruction, TV presentation, directing, script writing, acting, camera controlling, development work, public relations, housekeeping, car-wash attending, and fund raising – to name a few.

There are solutions:

Self-employment: This is often the solution to the barriers that beset so many disabled people in finding a job. Most commonly, self-employed people with ID are involved in bicycle or radio repairing, food selling businesses, tailoring, selling clothes, machine knitting and hand sewing. The point is that once a person who is intellectually disabled has received some training, the opportunities for active, useful work are definitely available. What the self-employed person with ID needs is exactly the same as any other person who is wanting to start their own business: training in small business management; customer relations; and assistance in accessing the kind of training required in order to undertake the service itself.

Formal employment: The number of people who are ID and in formal employment is higher than one might expect from the mention of all the barriers involved. It is pleasing to note that intellectually disabled people can hold responsible positions and execute their work competently. Many intellectually disabled people undertake their tasks with more focus, diligence and intention than other folks. This is because they value the opportunity to work, and take pride in getting things right. Coping with their disability and the job makes them extra attentive to detail and achievement.

It is good to know that a range of positions can be held by intellectually disabled people, depending on both level of enablement and attainment of training: teachers, ward attendants, bookkeepers, administrative personnel, telephone operators and screen printers, carpenters and craft workers, and factory work (weaving and spinning).

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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.

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