Counsellors’ own views, values and attitudes influence their practice with people with intellectual disability. Individual professionals and agencies have a responsibility to rigorously examine their personal and collective beliefs about intellectual disability, and consider barriers to the inclusion of people with intellectual disability as service users and as members of the wider community. The quote below is an honest example of the challenges that many practitioners experience when first engaging with people with intellectual disability.
Looking back on fifteen years of community work I realised that I had come in contact with a number of people with an intellectual disability. I wasn’t conscious at the time that they had an intellectual disability. I thought of them as a bit slow, a bit different. I realise now that as soon as I thought of them as being different I started to detach emotionally, energy wise. They became less human, less real, less visible to me. I didn’t really listen to what they were saying, I didn’t really work to assist their understanding, my communication became a sort of pretend communication. Now it seems to me that this detachment is a common response of people in the community, professionals etc. to people with an intellectual disability. (Community Living Program, 1995, in O’Connor & Fowkes, 2000, p. 14)
When human service professionals are not conscious of the personal values and attitudes they bring to their practice, they risk operating within stereotypes that disempower and disrespect people with an intellectual disability. This can influence the capacity of clients to receive and benefit from support they might require as a person who has been exploited, abused or criminally victimised.
Counsellors and therapists are not immune to these attitudes; we have all been exposed to negative understanding and depictions of intellectual disability. Therapists are also influenced by the organisations in which they work, which often focus on treating the client’s ‘impairment’ so the person can be as ‘normal’ as possible (Parkinson, 2006).
The following ‘myths and realities’ are good examples of ways that practitioners can positively challenge incorrect assumptions about intellectual disability.
MYTH: People with intellectual disability do not experience emotions in the same way as people without intellectual disability. People with intellectual disability can’t feel.
REALITY: People with intellectual disability have feelings and experience emotions in the same various ways as people without intellectual disability.
MYTH: People with intellectual disability have problems with the way their brain functions and, therefore, they are unable to think.
REALITY: No two people think in the same way. Some people, with or without an intellectual disability, may experience difficulty with abstract thought, while others may not.
MYTH: People with intellectual disabilities have trouble speaking and are unable to communicate well in a counselling or therapeutic environment.
REALITY: People with limited verbal communication abilities can communicate in many different ways if they are given the opportunity and encouragement to use creative means of communication.
MYTH: People with intellectual disability do not feel as hurt by exploitation or abuse as people without an intellectual disability.
REALITY: People with intellectual disability feel trauma, pain and distress from abuse as acutely as any other person.
MYTH: People with intellectual disability who display ‘challenging’ behaviours do so because of their disability.
REALITY: Many people have unique behaviours as a result of them having an intellectual disability; however, ‘challenging behaviour’ is often a signal that the person is experiencing frustration and anger as a result of recent trauma or abuse, and needs help to deal with it. (For more information, see the sections: ‘Behavioural issues in communication’ and ‘Self harm’.)