How adults with intellectual disabilities perceive themselves

by DAVID MORSTAD

A Matter of Perception

Do you ever look at someone and make assumptions about the kind of person they are? Of course you do. We all do. Chances are your assumptions are inaccurate; but then, so are the assumptions of others about you.

Here’s an exercise. Next time you are in an airport, take a short break from people-watching (one of my favorite activities), and briefly consider the reality that you are one of the people being watched. How well do the watchers know you? How accurate are their assumptions? How much do they know about the extent of your love for family, the depth of your pain over the loss of someone dear to you, or simply the diversity of your interests? Obviously, not much.  What they think about you and what you know about yourself are miles apart.

How people see themselves

As professionals in the disability field, this is a subtle but critically important consideration. Why?  Because how we see people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and how they as unique individuals view themselves are probably also miles apart.

In fact, people with developmental disabilities may not even see themselves as having a disability at all.  In the last several years, there has been some research around the question of how adults with intellectual disabilities self-identify.   If one’s professional interest is in things like advocacy or, more important, building self-advocacy skills, insight into this self-perception is vital.

It turns out, people with intellectual disabilities may or may not see themselves as having a disability. In fact, it is far more likely that they identify with people much younger than themselves — in other words, as children.

A recent study (Weller 2014) looked at how adults with intellectual disabilities perceived themselves. Only 73 percent of the participants self-identified as more closely resembling adults, whereas the remaining 27 percent self-identified as more closely resembling children. Who could be surprised at this? Treating adults with disabilities as though they were children is a sadly ubiquitous practice in American culture and beyond. Self-perception of a disability, though, is a different matter altogether.

Building self-identity

It turns out that the self-perception of people with disabilities is, to some extent, situational. On a field of competition, they identify as athletes; at work, they are fellow employees; in relationships, they see themselves as friends and lovers. In other words, they do not build an identity based on what they cannot do but on what they can do. Sound familiar? Probably, since that is precisely the way everyone else in the world defines themselves.

Guided by this, professionals are better positioned to form mutual relationships, ask more questions, and listen more deeply to the answers. As writer Kathie Snowii has encouraged, we need to “presume competence.” In so doing, we come alongside people to discover a richer and more complex relationship; and perhaps along the way discover a little more about ourselves.

iWeller, M.R. Self-Perception of Adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. (2014)  Advances in Applied Sociology 2014.

iiSnow, K. Presume Competence. (2007) Disability is Natural.  Found at

David Morstad is executive director of The Bethesda Institute in Watertown, Wisc.

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