When parents or families helped a family member with IDD connect to larger social networks beyond the family, some were surprised to discover that others were open to being asked for support. When one son wanted to know his father’s friends, the dad asked his friends and was surprised by the positive responses. One friend said he was “humbled and honored” that the father had asked him to support his son.
When asked, another potential friend of an individual with IDD said that she would love to spend time with her. Often parents do not realize that their child could have friends in their lives that are neither family members nor peers with disabilities. Or they may not realize what gifts their family member has to share with the world.
It’s not their fault. It’s quite possible that family members spend so much time trying to find services that meet an individual with IDD where he or she is that they tend to focus on gaps that need filling. As a result, they never realize that someone they see as operating at a disadvantage may actually have something special to offer the world.
It may be something as simple, but rare these days, as a sense of exuberance, joy, or wonder. Perhaps it’s a strong sense of responsibility. Or an interest in teaching others about a favorite topic. An insatiable curiosity. Or a funny fresh way of looking at the world.
All too often, individuals with developmental disabilities are kept separate from the rest of society. In the old days, they were kept in institutions. These days, although we know that social connections can benefit all people and we encourage people to expand beyond their comfort zones, it can be hard to get individuals with disabilities involved with broader social circles or communities.
Getting involved with other people can mean more than just physically sharing space with others. It’s about connecting with others. And it can involve how we play and share our interests. Relationship building is an important building block. We know that when people with IDD participate in faith communities, sports, their neighborhoods, and community organizations, they can increase their quality of life and sense of well-being.
If you work with or have IDD family members, you know that it can be hard to cultivate a social life with people outside the family or disabled community. Part of the problem is that disabled individuals usually have social networks that consist of family, support staff, or other persons with disabilities. And while people generally agree that individuals with intellectual disabilities should be included in society, they may resist interacting with them, because they are unsure of how to behave or find it uncomfortable. Plus, as family members or outside caregivers, we may be reluctant to place outsiders into situations where we think they may be uneasy.
But maybe, as the stories in the beginning suggest, reality is a kinder, gentler place than we may imagine. Maybe we should be careful not to let our fears shape our perceptions and dictate our actions—especially if that limits the size of our IDD family members’ social circles.
Another obstacle may involve transportation. Just getting to activities so that one can participate can be a barrier. So that must be worked out.
Recipes for social inclusion
If you want to help someone widen their social web, consider a few of the following ingredients:
Being accepted as an individual beyond the disability helps a person develop a stronger sense of self worth. Consider groups where the individual with IDD might fit right in. Maybe he loves classic cars or monster trucks. Or maybe she would like to join a knitters group or a yoga class.
Having significant and reciprocal personal relationships matters. This could be as simple as creating a relationship where your disabled son spends an hour each week helping an elderly neighbor with gardening or just sitting together chatting.
Being involved in activities makes it a lot easier to expand a person’s social circle. Invite people to meet your disabled family members. Or reach out to groups that organize events the IDD member may be interested in. You can tell them, “Remember us when you organize an event. We can help out. And we want to have fun, too.” They should see your family member as a resource, someone who can help them out.
So how do you expand someone’s sense of community or belonging?
You could brainstorm community groups, people, or relationships that could be developed. Connecting with people who share similar interests means folks will be naturally drawn together. They already have something in common that creates a social glue.
After brainstorming ideas, have your family member chose their three favorite ideas to pursue. Then list a few steps you’ll need to take to get the member involved in the group
This kind of approach has helped individuals with IDD get jobs, socialize more with neighbors, and get far more involved in church or social civic activities.
Here are some of the ways people with IDD expanded their social circles:
- A married couple gave an individual a ride to their church twice a month
- Several individuals reconnected with old friends from school
- An individual got to know a man at church better after saying he wanted to meet him and working out with his parents to invite him to lunch after church.
- An individual joined a weekly cribbage group
- An individual joined a university women’s basketball team fan club
- An individual enjoyed a weekly trivia contest at a restaurant/bar
- An individual volunteered at a children’s museum
- An individual performed in a theater production
- An individual volunteered with an animal rescue group
Clearly, there are many people, groups, and venues that would not only welcome the help of individuals with developmental disabilities, they would benefit from their efforts. In many cases, such individuals can contribute to the greater good and enjoy the benefits of interacting with other community members.