Before talking about disability awareness, it is necessary to discuss self-awareness: not only is an individual more than their disability, disability awareness is an extension of self-awareness.  It is crucial for an individual with a disability to have self-awareness so they can see themselves as an individual just as unique as someone without a disability, and not to define themselves by their disability.  For others to recognize an individual with a disability as more than their disability, the individual needs to be able to identify themselves as more than just someone with a disability.

What is Self-Awareness?

Self-awareness is an understanding of one’s self, and an individual’s ability to be self-aware typically increases with age.  Self-awareness looks very different for a 5-year-old, a ten-year-old, a teenager and an adult.  It is a skill that can be taught and ultimately for an individual to be fully self-aware, they need to understand their strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, fears, wants, desires, and beliefs.  

Steps to gaining Self-Awareness:

1.    The individual needs to know what self-awareness is and understand why it is essential for them to be self-aware.

Ex: I need to know about myself, so I can tell other people who I am and what makes me important!

2.    Help the individual identify their talents, strengths and weaknesses in a variety of different contexts.  

Ex: What are your strengths at home, school and in the community?  What things are hard for you to do on your own?

3.    The individual should reflect on what their feelings, opinions, biases and values are.  They should then think about how these relate to other individuals and their beliefs.

Ex: What is important to me? Is it necessary for everybody else?

4.    They need to understand what they feel ‘success’ is and decide what success is for them.

Ex: What would make it so you are happy with your life?

Steps to gaining Disability Awareness:

1.    Disability awareness is very important for an individual with a disability and their family.  It is essential that you understand what the formal term and diagnosis mean so when you are asked by others what it means to have the disability you can describe it.  It will mean you can correct people who are misinformed about the disability so you can help them understand the condition better.

2.    After you know how to explain the disability, you will need to develop a full understanding of how it affects you or loved one’s daily life. Each disability has several symptoms, and for many disabilities, all symptoms do not have to be present for a diagnosis.  When someone learns that someone has a disability, they will often think of previous people they have encountered with that disability and apply that person’s symptoms to this new case.  I am not sure why people feel they can generalize a disability like this, but they do. 

Ex: If someone tells only tells you they have a learning disability, can you tell by looking at them what areas they have problems with?

3.    It is critical for you to develop an awareness of coping strategies that work and do not work to help compensate for your disability. Do not assume that just because a strategy works for one person that it will work for you.  Even siblings with the same disability can have strategies that work for one of them but make it harder for the other.  Be aware that there will likely be several people with good intentions who may try to convince you of attempting a new strategy but if you have a strategy that works for you and you like it do not feel like you have to try their strategy.  At the same time do not be afraid to try new strategies if you still haven’t found one that works well for you.

4.    Self-acceptance and disability acceptance is a crucial step in the self-awareness/disability awareness process for the individual and their family members.  This can be a challenging step for some individuals, and it is important that they take the time they need to process and come to terms with the diagnosis. This is something you cannot force, and you cannot rush through.  Of course, there will be days that are harder to accept the diagnosis than others, but once you are able to discuss the diagnosis without getting upset about talking about it, you are on your way to disability acceptance.  Please note, there may be some people in an individual’s life that never accept or come to terms with the diagnosis.  There is no way that you can force acceptance of a diagnosis.

5.    It is helpful for an individual to be able to compartmentalize their disability, so they are able to see themselves as more than just the disability.  Having a disability does not make them any less of a person with individual likes and dislikes.  There may be some things that are more difficult or impossible for them to do because of their disability, but it does not mean they are any less of a person.  It can be helpful for the individual to attribute the issue to their disability, but at the same time, it is essential that they do not use their disability as an excuse for not trying things.  There are many people in this world that can do surprising things despite their disability.  Think of all of the great scientific ideas that Stephen Hawking came up within even though he was a paralyzed and not able to use a pencil.

Remember:

Individuals with disabilities need to remember that you know yourself the best.  You may not know everything there is to know about the disability you have, but you know about how the disability affects your life. Understanding more about your disability will likely help you understand more about yourself and provide you with insight into what you might be able to do differently to make your life easier.

Parents of individuals with disabilities, you are the expert on your child and how their disability affects their daily life.  Experts can tell you about the disability and various strategies to try.  Take the time to listen and learn as much as you can from them.  In the end remember, you know your child the best and are the one who has to decide if those strategies are right for your family.

This post is based on a journal article by Raskind, Goldberg, Higgins & Herman’s qualitative analysis of 20 years of research published Learning Disabilities Research & Practice.