For many years, people with intellectual disabilities were viewed as limited in their ability to learn and function in society in comparison with others, and therefore not likely to have much in the way of ambition. The idea that they may wish to pursue a career, hobby, or work with goals in mind for satisfying outcome, was hardly considered.

However, today there is a different view entirely. In fact, one of the most important factors with regard to handling any disability is the development of a sense of purpose, engagement and involvement. It is not only possible, but a life-changing focus that many people with intellectual disability experience as an empowering spirit which helps to overcome setbacks and establish positive steps towards a life of forward-thinking and satisfaction.

The focus towards purpose

It’s important to know that receiving early treatment in the form of supportive services can often help people with intellectual disability function more normally or even independently. This support can be vital in forming a sense of purpose. Basic training can develop social functioning through the improvement of skills such as social judgment, communication, and the ability to follow social rules and cues.

People living with disabilities are no different to other people in respect of understanding their own individual identity; they feel the same gamut of emotions as we do, and have the same dreams, interests, hobbies, and goals as we may do. A person living with an intellectual disability does not want that disability to define them – they want to be understood as a person through their likes, ambitions and desires – just like anybody else.

Rules for purpose

  • Encourage children to make decisions for themselves from as early as possible. Begin with simple things like what to wear, and how to spend time; eventually bigger decisions can be enabled with regard to finances and goal-setting.
  • People’s ideas for what they believe will provide them with a purposeful life must be treated with respect and dignity, and a genuine desire to assist and guide.
  • Developing a purpose in life always comes down to how the parents relate to a child during upbringing. Once a family realises that one of their members is not developing typically, they should immediately ensure that they focus on the strengths of the child in order to build confidence and resilience.
  • When a positive family identity is sustained as the child grows, the family becomes a resource for the child, helping him or her to develop an understanding of the financial, emotional and practical fundamentals of the family. This grows a healthy, mature mind that can focus outside of itself, and build dreams and desires without fear of failure but rather the belief that many things are possible and achievable.
  • Family identity is most important in the early life of a child with an intellectual disability. When that is handled in the right way, it makes it easier for the child to establish their own identity, which is the core for establishing a sense of purpose. There is enormous scope for families to find hope and opportunity by maintaining a cohesive family identity that is not defined by their child’s disability.
  • The next step is to help the intellectually disabled person develop a positive purpose. A discussion of constructive contribution, direction and motivation should focus on developing social connections beyond the family. Young people and adults with purpose tend to have greater health and wellbeing, and broader interaction.
  • Part of developing purpose should include exposing a young person to challenges, and gradually increasing the complexity of these challenges. Success is a hugely motivating factor and especially important to people with special needs who respond positively to encouragement and results.
  • Beliefs, values and traditions play a particular role in creating the security and motivation to act; cultural strengths often bolster positive identity and purpose. Motivation to contribute is far greater when an individual is part of a community – whether based on race, nationality, gender, or personal condition – and in all situations social support is critical.
  • Improving behaviour through learning emotional control is another vital aspect to developing a vibrant sense of purpose. Purpose and determination can be lost through negative emotions. Parents and carers who demonstrate healthy coping strategies fulfil an important role here. Carers should demonstrate to intellectually disabled children and adolescents ways of coping with stress by using techniques such as: distraction, positive self-talk and relaxation techniques, along with the value of maintaining contact with supportive friends and family.

Strengthening coping strategies – plus strong focus on maintaining wellbeing and motivation to contribute positively – remain the hallmarks of purpose. Having work or a hobby, or constructive engagements with others is all part of the purpose of life. Understanding this from a young age will fundamentally help intellectually disabled persons at many levels to avoid or overcome any depression or sense of isolation.

The story of Sunfield Home

Chris and Lynne Bennett, parents of a young girl with Down Syndrome, pursued their dream of establishing a home for their daughter and other intellectually disabled young adults in the Western Cape. Together with other parents, they founded the Sunfield Home in Wellington, providing a loving and nurturing environment for over 100 residents and day-care adult individuals.

Each individual is screened to evaluate their strengths and allocate activities according to their abilities. A protective workshop has been established where contract work is undertaken, as well as arts and crafts activities. An employment scheme has also been developed and as a result permanent and successful positions have been found within the surrounding wine and cheese industries.

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