Impact Feature Issue on Parenting Teens and Young Adults with Disabilities

Ways to Enhance Social Inclusion


Brian Abery is a Project Director with the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

Teens and young adults with disabilities who have positive social relationships with peers, and participate in community activities they enjoy and value, are on the path to greater satisfaction and success in adult life than those who are socially isolated and uninvolved in recreation and leisure activities. Young people who have opportunities to develop and practice social skills, and engage in activities of their choosing with peers of their choosing, demonstrate improved coping abilities, increased independence, and greater self-determination, self-esteem, and self-confidence. Social inclusion also has the potential to strengthen leadership skills, promote acceptance between young people with and without disabilities, and support development of age-appropriate, socially-valued behaviors.

Determination, creativity, and effective planning by families can support teens/young adults with disabilities to develop and maintain valued social relationships with persons of their own choosing. What can families do to facilitate social inclusion? Below are a number of suggestions:

  • Believe that social inclusion is possible. If inclusion is seen as a “do-able” challenge, it is much more likely that all involved, including teens/young adults with disabilities, family members, and persons in the community, will be motivated and willing to work toward it.
  • Identify the activities for which your teen/young adult has a passion. We typically develop friendships with those we view as similar to ourselves and with whom we have common interests. A good place to start facilitating inclusion is to provide young people with opportunities to engage in activities that they enjoy with others who are also passionate about the activities. Based on conversations with and observations of your teen/young adult, figure out what they really enjoy doing. Using such interests as a starting point ensures that they will be motivated to engage in the activity on a regular basis, which enhances the likelihood of social relationships developing.
  • Identify and communicate to others the strengths, gifts, and capacities of your teen/young adult. It is too often assumed that young people with disabilities have few, if any, strengths or gifts. Uncovering, acknowledging, and letting others know the personal capacities of your teen/young adult not only has the potential to begin changing attitudes of peers, but increases the likelihood that your young person will experience belonging and valuing in the community.
  • Create an action plan. Given that social inclusion is a crucial developmental outcome, it is appropriate that it is included in the IEP, Transition, and/or person-centered plan of your teen/young adult. Making inclusion happen is hard work and takes supports. Plan ahead to insure that the necessary resources are available.
  • Let your teen/young adult do the choosing. All of us desire to choose our own friends and to be chosen by others. Respect the right of your teen/young adult to choose their own friends whether these are individuals with or without disabilities.
  • Develop knowledge of resources and how to access them. Learn about programs, organizations, and activities available in your community that might present opportunities for social connections through shared recreation and leisure experiences. Talk with other parents of teens/young adults with disabilities to find out what worked (or did not) for them; keep a notebook with your young person of ideas and experiences.
  • Develop an awareness of the skills that will support participation. Talk to those individuals who will be staffing or supervising clubs, programs, or events and ask about the specific skills that teens/young adults are expected to have that will facilitate their full or partial participation. Assess the extent to which your young person possesses those skills/capacities and problem-solve what supports they will need to meet any challenges that they are likely to experience. If there are barriers to participation, identify the staff who are most likely to be able to help remove the barriers. Talk to them about the need to support inclusion, on how it “fits” with the mission and vision of the organization, and the specific needs that have to be addressed.
  • Assess the extent to which your family is able to support participation and inclusion. Family support must be present to make social inclusion happen and working toward this goal does not come without some risks. Determine the extent to which you are willing to support your teen/young adult taking some risks and engaging in activities that might be new; be open to them developing social relationships with peers you do not know; and provide concrete support (e.g., program fees, transportation).
  • Find a bridgebuilder. Whenever your teen/young adult begins a new experience, stay on the lookout for someone who might be interested in serving as a bridge-builder. Such individuals are socially skilled, connected, and can be enlisted to help your teen/young adult become familiar with the activity and setting, and to introduce them to other participants.