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Every year March is commemorated as Intellectual Disability Awareness Month, and this year the South African Federation for Mental Health will be creating awareness around the right that persons with intellectual disabilities have to employment.

In South Africa only 1.2% of the workforce are people with disabilities, according to the 16th Commission for Employment Equity Annual Report, in comparison with employment equity target for employment of persons with disability which is 2%. One group who experience extreme exclusion from the open labour market are adults with intellectual disability. People with intellectual disability are marginalised and excluded from various aspects of life due to the perception that they are unable to contribute or play a meaningful role due to their disability. Adults with intellectual disability have to contend with being treated like children their entire lives, regardless of their legal age. This type of treatment is extremely disempowering, and helps to perpetuate the stigma that persons with intellectual disability are not capable of contributing to society or of living full and meaningful lives.

Preventing a person with intellectual disability from entering the workplace is a violation of their basic human rights; it prevents them from achieving a degree of personal independence, as well as preventing them from sharing their skills, insights, and abilities with their communities. With the correct support and training persons with intellectual disabilities can be empowered to enter the open labour market. Despite various pieces of both national and international legislation ensuring the right of people with intellectual disabilities to employment, such as the Bill of Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, persons with intellectual disability in South Africa remain unemployed.

Unemployment amongst people with intellectual disabilities can be attributed to a number of factors:

•              Low skills levels due to inadequate education

•              Discriminatory attitudes and practices by employers

•              Lack of enabling mechanisms to promote employment opportunities

•              Inaccessible public transport

•              Inaccessible and unsupportive work environments

•              Inadequate and inaccessible provision for vocational rehabilitation and training

•              Generally high levels of unemployment

•              Inadequate access to information

•              Ignorance in society.

Despite these challenges the reality is that persons with intellectual disabilities can successfully perform a wide range of jobs, and can be dependable workers.  They can also add a variety of skills and values to the workplace if they are given the opportunity to do so. 


The story of Jason Pareira

“I am very proud of myself and being employed is such a great feeling…” 

Jason Pereira started at Training Workshop Unlimited, a protective workshop run by Cape Mental Health, in 2000 as a trainee in the Work Skills area. In 2005 Jason was selected to be a part of the Siyanceda project which was a 24 month set skills development project. Through this opportunity, Jason was equipped with various skills including hygiene and cleaning skills, proper use of indoor and outdoor cleaning equipment and materials, good workplace behaviour; as well as skills such as budgeting and socialisation. Hereafter, Jason found himself setting goals for his future as he aspired to be an independent, working member of society.

In 2008, Jason applied for a position as a cleaner at the Foundation for Community Work (FCW). With his skill set established and Job Coach support to prepare himself for the interview process, Jason went into the interview with confidence. In retrospect Jason recalls that if it was not for the training he would not have been ready for the interview. Jason has now been an employee of FCW for 8 years and after 8 years, he still arrives at work one hour early every single day with more enthusiasm and motivation than an employee displays on their first day at a new job. ”I like to be early because it gives me a chance to prepare myself, get settled and have a cup of coffee before I start my day.”

“I am very proud of myself and being employed is such a great feeling. I am independent, I can travel to work on public transport, I am part of FCW staff, I contribute to the men’s group at my church and most importantly I can manage my own money, I like nice things but I put my needs ahead of my wants”.

-Jason Pareira


During Intellectual Disability Awareness Month, the South African Federation for Mental Health calls on government and the private sector to prioritise job creation for persons with intellectual disability, and to create an open labour market that is inclusive and accessible to all sectors of society. It is essential that persons with intellectual disability are afforded the same opportunities to develop skills and to create better lives for themselves and their families that all other South African citizens enjoy. SAFMH calls on your support for the empowerment of persons with intellectual disabilities to enter the open labour market and secure employment.  



Marthé Viljoen

Programme Manager: Information & Awareness 

SA Federation for Mental Health

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