Intellectual disability is the contemporary term that describes the phenomenon that has also been known as learning disabilities, mental retardation, mental handicap, idiocy, subnormality, and mental deficiency. Most people will have an immediate and common-sense understanding of intellectual disability and who people with intellectual disabilities are, based on their own particular life experiences. This chapter aims to move beyond such common-sense notions, derived from personal experience, the media, film, or fiction and explore a little further the meaning of intellectual disability. It will look at questions such as: What is intellectual disability? Does it have a basis in reality? How is it socially created and constructed in western society at the beginning of the twenty-first century? By unpacking the complexity of intellectual disability, it aims to show social workers that the experiences of people with intellectual disability can be understood both as the personal troubles of the milieu and the ‘public issues of social structure’ (Wright Mills, 1970, p. 14); and to help them recognize that just as in any other field of social work practice, there are multiple ways to work, at both the individual and structural levels to redress disadvantage, improve quality of life and bring about social change to reduce discrimination and oppression that result from the ‘social problem’ of intellectual disability.
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