IDAM 2023: Destigmatising Intellectual Disability Through Shifting Attitudes

SAFMH News Room

“Just like the phoenix that rises from the ashes, I am rising.”

(Peter’s words as an empowered person with intellectual disability)

Whilst attitudes towards persons with intellectual disability (ID) have changed over time, evidence suggests that these individuals remain near the bottom of the social hierarchy. Studies have shown that members of the public would rather engage in social interactions with persons with physical or sensory disabilities than with persons with ID (Scior & Werner, 2016).

“Stigma is incredibly harmful, but it does not have to be inevitable. Evidence from high-and low-income countries suggests that anti-stigma interventions can change public attitudes for the better”, says Michel’le Donnelly, Project Leader: Advocacy and Awareness at the South African Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH).

Intellectual Disability Awareness Month (IDAM) is celebrated annually in March. This year, the SA Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH) will be focusing on the theme “Destigmatising intellectual disability through shifting attitudes”. The month is a chance for us to highlight various important aspects related to ID, as it remains one of the most disregarded disabilities in South Africa. (Western Cape Forum for Persons with Intellectual Disability, 2020).

ID provokes different reactions from people. While many people show sympathy, compassion or a willingness to help towards persons with visible disabilities, ID often elicits negative reactions such as anxiety, pity, avoidance or even antagonism or disgust, which arise because of stigma (Scior & Werner, 2016). These feelings can often be seen as a result of a lack of awareness and a misunderstanding of ID.

One effective way to raise awareness is by having persons living with ID emboldened to become self-advocates, so they can share their own stories, voices and experiences.

By encouraging self-advocacy, we as service providers, advocacy organisations and society as a whole are increasing our knowledge of issues and of barriers being faced by various groups of oft-marginalised people. This in turn informs our calls to policymakers to better identify and argue for the most effective policies to ensure persons with ID have equal access to opportunities, rights and resources. It also gives us a sense of what persons with ID are experiencing and can go a long way in helping to shift attitudes”, says SAFMH Deputy Director, Leon de Beer.

SAFMH believes that stigma can be eradicated if we start by meaningfully shifting attitudes to intellectual disabilities across all areas of society. This IDAM we call for:

  • Media to consider their role in shifting attitudes regarding intellectual disability. Specifically, how their reporting could promote positive attitudes towards ID and prevent stigma and discrimination.
  • The public to reflect on their attitude towards ID as this can go a long way in supporting more community inclusions for persons with ID.

We call on Government to enable the rights of persons with ID through ensuring that stigma against these individuals is curbed, and that opportunities for employment, education and wider community integration are actively facilitated, through bringing to life the ideals encapsulated within the South African constitution, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the South African White Paper on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

We also call on organisations working with persons with ID to commit to sharing the voices, perspectives and stories of persons with ID as an ongoing tool for effective advocacy, along with supporting these individuals towards becoming confident self-advocates, who are able to effectively articulate their views, needs and opinions.

As SAFMH, we want to amplify the voices of persons with ID. As such we are also going to be holding in-person workshops with community-based organisations who work with persons with ID to understand their experiences of stigma, their thoughts on stigma and how they believe we can begin to start really shifting attitudes to ID in the country.

We are also supporting the LITTLE EDEN Society, and their annual CEO Wheelchair Campaign. The campaign creates awareness about the challenges faced by people with severe and profound intellectual disabilities, who in many cases also have restrictions in terms of mobility, and raises much-needed funds for the organisation, who cares for approximately 300 residents with severe and profound intellectual disabilities, many whom have been abandoned by their families

To sign up and get involved in the CEO Wheelchair Campaign, contact Nadine Mason at


For media enquiries, please contact:

Michel’le Donnelly – Project Leader: Advocacy & Awareness

CELL: +27 (0)79 799 6533

EMAIL: michel’

Reference List

  • Scior, K., & Werner, S. (Eds) (2016). Intellectual disability and stigma. Stepping out from the margins. London, United Kingdom: Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Western Cape Forum for Persons with Intellectual Disability (2021). Frequently asked questions. Accessed at

Subscribe to Our Newsletter


COVID-19 Corona Virus South African Resource Portal

Please visit the COVID-19 Corona Virus South African Resource Portal at Alternatively contact the Emergency Hotline: 0800 029 999 or the WhatsApp Support Line: 0600 123456