March declared Intellectual Disability Awareness Month

“TO be accepted for who I am and actually having the confidence to stand up and say ‘this is me and I have an intellectual disability, but that does not define me’ – is a BIG achievement.” – Velisa, employee at Port Elizabeth Mental Health

Every year March is commemorated nationally as Intellectual Disability Awareness Month, and this year the focus is on creating awareness around the right that persons with intellectual disabilities have to employment. Based on statistics in South Africa only 1.2% of the workforce are people with disabilities, where according to the Commission for Employment Equity Annual Report the set target is 2% and the group affected the most in the lack of employment are adults with intellectual disabilities.

Individuals with intellectual disabilities are a soundless minority, often overlooked by a society that finds it too easy to look in the opposite direction. Their needs can be overwhelming at stages in their lives, but that does not make them inferior. They have abilities and work traits that make them exemplary employees.  Port Elizabeth Mental Health can attest to this – with their commitment to creating access to jobs for persons with intellectual disability.

Velisa is a member of the Port Elizabeth Mental Health staff, who has an intellectual disability.  Her bubbly personality and commitment sees her striving to do her best in any given task. It makes a difference when you start looking at the ability rather than the disability.

We asked her about herself.

Question: Tell us about your experience at a mainstream school.

Answer: I attended Ethembeni Enrichment Centre until grade 8, that is when coping became difficult and influenced my progress in completing the set school curriculum.

Q: Why did you decide to leave school and where did you go from there?

A: Grasping concepts seemed impossible, I could not focus on the school work as it all just went by daily and that caused a major delay in my learning and getting the assigned work done. After leaving school I stayed at home for a year because I was confused, I had no guidance as to where I should be or what I should do.

Q: What was the experience like being admitted to the Port Elizabeth Mental Health Skills Training Facility?

A: To be honest at first accepting the fact that I dropped out of school and now I am placed in a training centre with other youth who had an intellectual disability, was hard. Accepting I was different was a challenge I faced daily seeing my peers succeed faster than I was.  But after some time I became so comfortable at the centre, I enjoyed my time there, interacting with others and being placed in “leadership roles” made me feel important, like I mattered. I was selected to give guidance to the other youth in the centre and then I was placed at the Port Elizabeth Mental Health office in a domestic cleaning position for 3 days a week.  I improved so much in my time that the Director offered me a full time position in the office.

Q: How has being at the Centre assisted you in your personal growth?

A: I enjoyed being at the centre, they taught me to weave and even knit clothing, so if something happens one day or if I did not get this job opportunity I know I learned so much and gained the confidence I needed to look after myself.

Q: What challenges do you think others with intellectual disabilities face daily through your own experience?

A: Acceptance and actually having the confidence to stand up and say “this is me and I have an intellectual disability, but that does not define me”. Be open about your disability and accept the special person you were created to be.

Q: What advice would you give to employers about employing people with intellectual disabilities?

A: I feel companies definitely should employ people with disabilities.  We can do what other people can – yes we might at times take a bit longer to learn, but we are able to learn and follow instructions. We are eager to prove our worth and push ourselves to meet expectations so it’s a guarantee we will succeed.

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