Many of us who do not experience intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) take the choices we are able to make for granted. We try new things and take chances to know what we like, don’t like, and what opportunities are available to us. 

Individuals with IDD don’t often get to make such decisions. Large portions of their lives are controlled (for their protection and benefit) by their parents, support workers and case managers. The choices made for them by parents and support professionals, can shape a person’s concept of her or himself.

IDD service providers are the people most capable of promoting self-determination, supporting choice-making and empowering the individuals they work with. Here are three steps that service providers can take to empower individuals with IDD. 

1. Introduce Life Experiences

All of the different experiences we have, activities we participate in, and communities we interact with directly affect how we make decisions. 

It makes sense that the more we experience, the better decisions we can make. Not incorporating a variety of experiences in the life of individuals with IDD can diminish their ability to make well-informed decisions and improve their quality of life. 

Supporting personal choices in community engagement and employment are ways in which service providers can help build empowerment in individuals with IDD.

2. Develop Self-Esteem

It is unfortunate, but many individuals with disabilities have low self-esteem and self-worth which prevent them from expressing themselves, or what they want or need. Direct support professionals (DSPs) and other service providers can help disabled individuals build their self-esteem in a number of ways.

  • Focus on the positive. Disabilities are defined by their limitations but people are defined by their abilities, so focus on those. Bring attention to a person’s strengths or trade positive language for negative.
  • Promote self-care. Give praise and positive emotion for the individual when they eat healthier foods, get physical activity or plenty of sleep. Help make the connection between self-care and a good mood so they’ll be encouraged to continue those practices. 
  • Avoid “should” statements. Disabilities present challenges in many different ways; one individual may complete an action quicker than others even if they have similar disabilities. Let individuals work at their own pace, and create realistic goals on their abilities instead of another’s. 

3. Practice Assertiveness

The person being supported needs to feel they can say “yes” or “no”. Assertive communication isn’t commanding, but helps the person stand up for themselves honestly. DSPs can help individuals with disabilities learn assertiveness by role-playing in games that allow them to make decisions and change their mind, while clearly seeing the consequences of that decision.

Empowerment is a Process

Each of the 3 steps above is just a step in a much longer process. When creating support for people with disabilities, it is important to understand that every practice may take a form of “trial and error”. There are so many different ways for parents and support professionals to work towards one of the steps above. One practice may not work or fit an individual. It then becomes a team effort for the individual and support team to find a different practice that does. 

When DSPs, parents and other support people are flexible, creative and accepting of some uncertainty, the disabled individuals they care for will achieve the most control and be empowered to continue on that journey of growth and personal expression.

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