Accommodating cognitive differences

New ideas for social work with people with intellectual disabilities

Authored by: Christine Bigby

The Routledge Handbook of Social Work Theory

Print publication date:  July  2019
Online publication date:  June  2019

Print ISBN: 9780415793438
eBook ISBN: 9781315211053
Adobe ISBN:


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People with intellectual disabilities are one of the most disadvantaged groups in Western societies with high rates of poverty, social exclusion and abuse (Bigby & Frawley, 2010). Mainstream service systems continue to fail them by not adjusting to their cognitive differences, and they are poorly positioned to benefit from the neoliberal changes to welfare states that offer self-direction over individualized services. More so than other groups, people with intellectual disabilities need trusting relationships and skilled support to claim resources, direct their own services and exercise rights as citizens to live good lives of their own choosing (Ellem, O’Connor, Wilson, & Williams, 2013; O’Connor, 2014). Social work, as the lead profession in human services, should play a key role in this by ensuring enabling individual support, challenging disabling social structures and securing the resources to redress social exclusion and other inequities. To achieve this, social workers must adapt their own direct practice and have the capacity to critically analyze social systems to identify levers for building the capacity of communities to be inclusive.

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