Understanding Disabilities in a Horticultural Context

Whilst a horticultural therapist is not expected to be an expert in disability, it is important that they are aware of what a disability is.

There are various definitions of disability, but a useful one is detailed in the UK Disability Discrimination Act.  It states that a person with a disability has

“A physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect upon their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.”

So what does that actually mean?  Well, an impairment is defined as a part of the body or brain that does not function fully.  So a disabled person is someone who finds it hard to do day to day things due to their disability.  This can therefore relate to many different things. Consider what a person may find difficult, such as:

  • Getting in and out of the bath
  • Meeting friends
  • Getting high scores in a test at school
  • Finding a job
  • Getting to and from places easily

Consider a person who requires a wheelchair to go out. They have an impairment, because they will find it difficult to go to the shops without their wheelchair. They perhaps may require someone to push the wheelchair. They may find it hard to get round the shops because the aisles are not wide enough. They may not be able to reach goods that are on high shelves and so on.   So impairments can be:

  • Impairments that affect a person’s movement – such as their legs, arms, neck
  • Impairments that affect the senses – they may have visual difficulties, or difficulties hearing that requires a hearing aid.
  • They may have a condition that means their disability is likely to get worse over time. Conditions such as HIV, cancer, muscular dystrophy and multiple scleroses, can affect a person’s physical state over time.
  • Severe disfigurements – such as scars, skin diseases, loss of limbs

But disabilities do not only relate to physical impairments. It can also relate to psychological or mental health issues.

Intellectual disabilities/intellectually challenged/learning disabilities are all terms that refer to people who have significantly impaired cognitive functioning and problems with two or more adaptive behaviours.  In the past, terms such as mentally retarded or mentally handicapped were considered, but these are no longer used due to their insulting nature.

But what does this mean?  A significant impairment in cognitive functioning means that the person has an intelligence quotient (IQ) of less than 70.  But a low IQ score is not considered enough to say that a person has learning disabilities. They also have to have problems with two or more adaptive behaviours.  Adaptive behaviour relates to how we adapt. How we use one form of behaviour in another situation.  

People with learning disabilities may have difficulties with adaptive behaviours such as:

  • Safety
  • Safe food handling
  • Eating
  • Money management
  • Dressing
  • Grooming
  • Making friends
  • Social skills
  • Taking personal responsibility
  • Following rules – for example, at school, at work
  • Being unable to work
  • Following instructions
  • Personal hygiene

For example, they may require support with washing and dressing themselves.   

A learning disability is not the same as a mental illness/mental health issue/mental disorder.  A person with a mental illness may not have any problems with their IQ or intellectual functioning, but they may find it hard to cope in their daily lives due to their condition.  It is a psychological pattern that is usually reflected in the person’s behaviour and is not seen as part of a person’s “normal development” within their culture.  Mental disorders are usually considered to be a change in how the person, thinks, acts, feels and perceives.  Mental illnesses are wide spread. The World Health Organisation has reported that over one third of people report a mental disorder problem at some point in their lives.

Some examples of mental health disorders include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Phobias, such as school phobias, agoraphobia
  • Bipolar disorder (previously known as manic depression)
  • Personality disorders such as antisocial personality disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Eating disorders

Linked to this, a person with a mental health issue, may (but not in all cases) also have other attendant problems such as suicidal thoughts, self harm, panic attacks.
We do not always know what causes mental illness.  There can be a variety of factors or no obvious factor, such as:

  • Stressful life events
  • Difficult family background or upbringing
  • Their body’s own biochemistry
  • Physical health problems can impact on a person’s psychological health
  • Social problems, such as poverty

Whilst it is not essential for a horticultural therapist to be an expert in different conditions, you may find it useful to learn more about certain conditions that people you work with may be experiencing, for your own information and understanding.