According to the federal agency, approximately 1.2 million adults in America have an intellectual disability and around 944,000 adults have other developmental disabilities such as cerebral palsy and autism. The same census found that around 1.7 million children have an intellectual or developmental disability (IDD), indicating a concurrent rise in numbers as the population itself increases. It is essential that we educate and spread information about how to appropriately deal with an increase in the IDD population.
Those with intellectual and developmental disabilities often require special care, unique communication techniques, or exhibit behavior that the uninitiated consider “difficult.” The more people who understand the correct strategies for working with adults with developmental disabilities, the higher their quality of life will become. We’ve been working effectively and compassionately with the adult IDD population.
Strategies for Working with Adults with Developmental Disabilities
1. Emphasize Strengths, Not Weaknesses
Adults with developmental disabilities have been told their whole lives, directly and indirectly, that the way they think, look, act, and exist is wrong. This can lead to decreased performance, depression, and other negative outcomes–just as it would in any other population. It is critical that when you address and deal with adults with IDD that you focus on their abilities rather than their disabilities. Your main goal when working with your client or loved one should be to help them discover their strengths and focus on how they can meaningfully contribute.
This can be easier said than done when the person in question has internalized the negative stereotypes about themselves. Institutionalized thinking and lack of exposure create gaps in social interaction that don’t have to be there. Familiarity breeds comfort, recognition, and understanding and lessens the power of our differences. That’s why the best way to help someone with disabilities recognize and claim ownership over their own abilities is the practice of inclusion.
There are several levels of inclusion, the best of which benefit everyone. When adults with IDD are able to contribute visibly and have those contributions recognized, it builds their confidence. It also gives them a place of belonging in the world around them.
2. Don’t Stare. But Don’t Be Afraid to See.
When asked how they would like to be treated, most adults with developmental disabilities would answer, “Just like everyone else.”
It’s completely human to stare. You see something unfamiliar, so you look a little longer while your brain processes the new information. It’s called staring, and we developed it to help us survive. But staring can be very uncomfortable and isolating for the person on the receiving end. Most of us have been wired to interpret staring as a judgment on ourselves–“What’s wrong with me?” “How am I different?”
Being on the receiving end of staring over the entirety of your life can erode your confidence, make you second guess your abilities, and teach you to retreat into yourself to avoid more unwanted notice. On the other hand, the next (very human) behavioral alternative is to avert the gaze entirely. We’ve all been taught that staring is rude. Because it is. But to avoid being rude, society often tends to ignore adults with developmental disabilities completely. This is incredibly isolating and can be equally as harmful to their mental and emotional health by implying that they’re lesser or not worth interacting with.
So how can you find a happy medium? Where is the middle ground between staring and seeing? It sounds corny, but research has backed that an excellent place to start is a smile. Smiling serves several purposes. It indicates that you are not a threat and that your intentions are good. It also softens your face and makes you more approachable. And, most importantly, a smile indicates acknowledgment. By smiling at someone you are saying, “I see you, and I like what I see.”
The next step is familiarity and practice. Interact with people who have disabilities as often as possible. When someone in a wheelchair or with obvious physical indicators of a developmental disability makes eye contact, you should smile, and then engage if appropriate. Every disability presents itself differently. People with autism may have trouble reading facial expressions, while others may be completely typical in their neural function but unable to speak well because of a physical irregularity.
Be patient, don’t be afraid to ask them to repeat themselves, and emphasize that you want to understand and engage with them comfortably if they become frustrated.
3. Educate Yourself About the True Meaning of the Word “Inclusion”
Too often, when we think about the word inclusion we misinterpret it as “integration.” But simply being invited into a space developed to accommodate only typically-abled people is not true inclusion.
Let’s use the workplace as an example. Imagine that you tout yourself as an “inclusive” company because you are willing to hire people with disabilities. That’s good! But it’s also only the first step, which is integration. You have opened your space. True inclusion goes beyond this to ensure that the work environment is equally welcoming, comfortable, and safe for those with developmental disabilities as well as for those without.
As a further example, imagine that you have two children. You ask them to climb a tree to pick an apple. One child has a ladder that she inherited from her family and the other has no ladder. (Assume that in this world, it is very normal–even expected–for families to provide their children with ladders.)
The child with the ladder can easily complete the task set before them. The child with no ladder must both climb the tree and make her way safely back down to the ground without dropping the apple. It takes her much longer to complete the same task. There is nothing wrong with this child, she is just as capable as her counterpart–she just hasn’t been given the tools she needs to succeed.
If your company’s business is picking apples, provide your employees with ladders.
It’s not special treatment–it’s leveling the playing field by catering to a completely involuntary need. You cannot always anticipate the needs of an adult with developmental disabilities ahead of time. Different people need different accommodations. But once you’ve moved past integration, true inclusion means open communication and the provision of space, tools, and attitudes that are conducive to a safe and comfortable quality of life.
If you have questions or would like to further explore strategies for working with adults with developmental disabilities, contact Integrity, Inc. We have been serving those with IDD for over three decades, and our mission is to share that experience through education and socialization.