Journalist's guide to intellectual disability

Understanding intellectual disability

An intellectual disability is caused by the way the brain develops and is a lifelong condition which affects a person’s intellectual skills and behaviour.

It can impact a person’s communication skills, physical skills, memory, understanding, and social and emotional skills.

People with an intellectual disability may find it more challenging to learn, understand and communicate. They can require support with everyday things such as community inclusion, shopping, cooking and travelling right through to eating, drinking, washing, dressing and toileting.

Like each and every one of us, people with an intellectual disability are individuals with different hopes and dreams – they want different things in life and will need varying levels of support. An intellectual disability does not stop someone from living a fulfilling life, given appropriate support.

If you need more advice, please contact the media team and a member of Endeavour Foundation staff will be happy to assist.

Reporting on intellectual disability

There are some terminologies that should be avoided when reporting on intellectual disability.

Terminology Explanation
Brave Just because someone has disability, it doesn’t mean they are ‘courageous’, ‘brave’ or ‘special’. People with disability are the same as everyone else. It is in no way unusual or unique for someone with disability to have talents, skills and abilities.
Despite People with an intellectual disability are active in their community because of their abilities, not despite their disability.
Disabled Emphasises the disability, not the person. Using people/person with an intellectual disability is preferable.
Disadvantaged Don’t describe a person as disadvantaged just because they have an intellectual disability. A disability in itself needn’t be a disadvantage although often society’s response to a person’s disability can be a disadvantage.
Handicapped or retarded Don’t describe a person as handicapped just because they have a disability. A disability in itself needn’t be a handicap, although often society’s response to a person’s disability can be. Many people with disability find “the R word” highly offensive and it should not be used. 
Normal This may be a statistical term used to distinguish from people with disability in general but serves to exclude people with disability. Phrases including person without disability, or the wider population are preferable.
People with disabilities Can imply only people with more than one disability. The use of ‘people with a disability’ is preferable.
People like this… These people… This kind of language implies that people with an intellectual disability are outside the norm, and are exceptional or excluded in some way.
Special needs Many people with disability dislike euphemisms like ‘physically challenged’, ‘differently abled’ or ‘special needs’. People with disability may feel patronised if they are referred to as having special needs.
Sufferer or Suffers from

Referring to someone as a cystic fibrosis sufferer amounts to defining a person in terms of an illness. If the person’s exact illness or disability must be mentioned, it would be better to say a person with cystic fibrosis.
Equally, having a disability or a serious medical condition does not automatically equate to suffering and the use of ‘suffering’ or ‘sufferer’ may be considered patronising.

 Wheelchair bound / confined to a wheelchair Say ‘wheelchair user’ rather than ‘confined to a wheelchair’ or ‘wheelchair-bound’. Wheelchairs enable people to get around – they’re liberating, not confining.

Interviewing someone with an intellectual disability

People with an intellectual disability are the best authority on their own lives, feelings and opinions. Endeavour Foundation believes passionately that their voices should be heard and we support them to participate in the media if they wish to do so. 

Conversation should be as with any adult – there is no need to speak any more loudly than usual, and avoid speaking as though to a child.

Here are some tips that you may find useful:

  • Explain any recording equipment you might have before you start.
  • Make sure the interview environment is as quiet and free from distraction as possible.
  • If a support worker is present, ensure that you talk and listen to the person with an intellectual disability first. However, if necessary, do ask for clarification or additional information from the support worker.
  • Questions should be phrased as simply as possible – speak clearly and use everyday words, avoiding jargon.
  • Sentences should be kept short and each sentence should deal with only one topic.
  • Questions relating to time or numbers can be problematic and therefore questions such as: ‘how much?’ ‘how often?’ or ‘since when?’ should be avoided.
  • If you are not sure that the person you are interviewing has understood your question, try saying it in a different way or giving some examples of what you mean.
  • If you don’t understand the response, ask them to explain what they mean in a different way.
  • If you need to provide written information, use a large font with double line spacing. Visual images can also be helpful.