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Media stereotyping 'The person with an intellectual disability is treated as either 'heroic' or 'tragic''

This needs to change, writes Nuala Macklin.

INCLUSIVE EDUCATION HELPS build social cohesion and social capital with lasting impacts on lives and communities was a key message from the largest global gathering of people with intellectual disabilities in Birmingham recently.

Over 1,000 people from 71 countries attended the Inclusion International World Congress which included family members and world leaders in disability and development.

Through participants’ shared experiences including success stories and best practices, the gathering called for change and asserted  the right of inclusion and self-advocacy for those with intellectual disabilities.

Targeted investment

Lack of family support services; the right to inclusive education, and bringing an end to institutionalised housing were among the priorities voiced over the three-day event. There was unanimous agreement that strong governance in national policy and planning, and targeted investment for education is the most effective route to system reform.

“We have a long history of exclusion. The segregated system of education and housing which has prevailed since the 19th century must become a thing of the  past,” said Maureen Piggott, former Director of Inclusion Europe.

“In the past this was done for good reason, but we got it wrong. Now it’s time to put it right.”

She said: “Institutions only see the disability. They don’t see the ability in the person with an intellectual disability. In an inclusive society everyone is treated with respect; has the same choices, and feels welcome. In reality,  people with disabilities are amongst the most excluded in society, and amongst the poorest of the poor. In most cases, they don’t have houses or jobs, and they have worse health outcomes than others. This is because they don’t have the same access as other members of society. Accessing services becomes an issue because of low self-esteem as a result of the way they are treated in the world. This is how the systems work.”

Ignorance among professionals

Piggott cites ignorance amongst professionals whom people with disabilities rely on for help.

“GP’s, consultants and nurses get very little training on this aspect of health. They know very little about people with intellectual disabilities. The same goes for teachers or any profession you care to mention in fact. Ignorance amongst professionals fosters prejudices which are based on assumptions.”

These assumptions include the myth that a child with an intellectual disability ought not be in mainstream education. The assumption being that school is “too difficult” for such a child to participate in.

Piggott said: “In an a perfect world inclusive pre-schools should be provided. So that right from the start all children play together. This is how they learn about life and about differences. In this setting, children learn that difference is ‘good’; that difference is ‘okay’.”

Media’s role 

The media have a key role to play in perception where currently the person with an intellectual disability is treated as either ‘heroic’ or ‘tragic’.

According to Piggott: “The reality is that most  people live ordinary lives. As children, they just want to play, go to school, swim or go dancing just as others do. The child with the disability internalises the message ‘If I don’t feel welcome or respected, then that makes me feel less confident’. This needs to change. We need to welcome babies with disabilities into the world, and support their families too.”


Also attending the World Congress was Brian Hayes, Chairman of the National Platform of Self Advocates in Ireland. He said: “Every child should go to school no matter what their disability is. Teachers should be given ways to teach children with an intellectual disability right from their college training. This is so they can understand and help to develop the child.”

With a broad smile, Brian said: “I was never excluded when I was a child. My brother Pat started up a football team made up of children from our street. He only saw me as a person who could play with all the others. I was automatically included as a friend. All my family are very supportive.”

“Because I had a speech problem I was called ‘handicapped’ and got bullied in school sometimes. I found my voice when I went  to the National Learning Network later on. They supported me to a full life. I work for Kilkenny County Council as a caretaker, and I am a member of the Nore Bar Golf Society. I like this because they don’t see me as ‘different’. They think I have a right to be with them, just like any other human being. When I look around this big room I don’t see a single person with a disability; I only see ability wherever I look.”

Nuala Macklin is a journalist and international award-winning radio producer. The National Platform of Self Advocates in Ireland currently has 300 members nationwide. See

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