We don’t often associate disability with happiness. After all, disability whether physical or intellectual, translates in most people’s minds to dependency driven by constant challenge and difficulty.

But we couldn’t be more wrong – particularly when we look at intellectually disabled people. Look closely, and you will see people who are challenged but manage to find those challenges incredibly motivating, emerging with a vibrant flush of success even on small improvements and advancements.

The reality is that people with disabilities consistently report a quality of life as good as, or sometimes even better than, that of non-disabled people. In fact, impairment has been shown to make little difference in the quality of life.

Our appraisal of life with impairment may have less to do with reality than with ignorance and prejudice. We wrongly assume that difficulties for intellectually disabled people will automatically result in their unhappiness.

Extraordinary reasons why disability is not reason for unhappiness

  • People born with their disability have nothing with which to compare a different kind of life. Someone with an intellectual disability may not consider themselves different at all. Even if life is sometimes hard, intellectually disabled people are used to being the way they are.
  • Sometimes, disability may drive people to strive for greater achievement than before. If people have been disabled due to an accident or disease, and can remember a previous life, then yes, there may be very real comparisons and a depressing sense of loss – this is only human and natural. However, it seems that after a period of time and adjustment, people adapt to their new situation, re-evaluate their attitude to the disability, and start taking steps to make the best of things.
  • There is something called hedonic adaptation – which means that very often after trauma, one’s quality of life may return reasonably closely to what it was before the traumatic event. This does depend on personality and attitude though. There are always people who look for the worst in things, and those who find it easier to cope with setbacks. Coping is when people gradually redefine their expectations about functioning and reaching goals.
  • In truth, human beings are capable of adapting to almost any situation, finding satisfaction in the smaller things they can achieve, deriving happiness from their relationships with family and friends, even in the absence of other expectations and success.
  • Even to the extent that impairments do entail limitation, other factors in life can more than compensate, such as the comfort of friendship or culture, interests, hobbies and creative endeavours. The environment, stimulation and ongoing support plays a huge role in determining the happiness of anybody – but for disabled people it is essential. Participation, not impairment, is key.
  • In truth, happiness and psychological wellbeing is a crucial requirement of rehabilitation and acceptance. Attitude to life is more important in determining whether you will attain goals and face challenges than physical or intellectual attributes.
  • Granted, things are not easier for those with intellectual disabilities. People may struggle to communicate their feelings and frustrations. They may find it difficult to grasp positive thinking strategies and set goals for themselves. But then, on the other hand, being born with strong bones and above-average intelligence does not mean that any individual is destined to be happy either.
  • And then, on a philosophical note, difficulty sometimes engenders a new perspective – a realisation of deep, subconscious values that an unhindered person may not pick up on all their lives. The disablement itself may bring out positive components and hidden depths of capability that can be revolutionary – as surprising as they are exciting.

The story of Sunfield Home

Twenty years ago, 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.

Find out more about us at: www.sunfieldhome.co.za

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