By Adria Nassim
One day, shortly after I began taking classes at Indiana University, I missed my bus. It was cold and snowing, and I wandered around trying to find my way home for quite a while with no hat and my jacket unzipped. Soon I was lost.
I pulled out my phone and called my student advisor. He answered the call and said, “Turn around, look around, and find your way home.”
I stood there, cold and stunned. I began to walk again, and before long I saw a city bus. I got on, sat down, and rode the bus to the mall, where I waited at another bus stop for the next bus downtown.
Finally, cold, wet, tired, and hungry, I arrived back at my college support program. I interrupted their staff meeting, and they were all so proud when I let them know I had made it.
When I told my parents, they couldn’t believe I figured it out. (Some other things my parents never knew I could do: Get an Uber to get a ride home, order groceries for delivery, and care for the dogs while they were away.)
My parents encouraged my independence
I love talking to audiences about how my parents helped me become independent. They succeeded in large part because they harbored an idea called presumed competence, the belief that individuals with disabilities may not already know how to do a task or skill, but that they can be taught over time.
My parents’ example, modeled from when I was very young, helped me to develop self-confidence and self-esteem and learn to challenge myself. They knew that I had difficulties, and they continued to work on these challenges with me, but they taught me to look at what my strengths were.
They gave me responsibilities which increased as I got older, just like my non-disabled sister. With every new skill I learned, even though it took longer than most people, my confidence grew. I was so happy and so proud of myself.
Current discussions in disability studies reflect a range of thought on this topic. While some researchers see the concept of presumed competence to be a fad intervention and lacking empirical support, Cheryl Jorgensen writes about it differently .
On the one hand, Jorgensen considers, by providing the support to help their child learn typical age-appropriate skills such as learning to manage money and forming successful social relationships with peers with and without disabilities, parents illustrate the power of presumed competence. Other parents, she recognizes, are not so much in favor of using presumed competence, worrying that challenging their children may lead them to experience failure.
Out of challenges and failure comes growth
I understand that it is very natural for a parent to worry and want to care for their children. This is how it should be. It means you love your kid and want the best for them.
However, out of challenges and failure comes growth. Even if your child fails or becomes frustrated, he or she will not stop loving you. Just scale back the expectations a bit the next time.
In my experience, presumed competence is optimistic, but not naïve or impractical. It’s important when deciding how much to challenge a child that you understand them individually. What may be a reasonable goal for one child may not be appropriate for another. Similarly, what one child may be able to do independently, another child may require prompting or supervision.
Be mindful of issues such as your child’s understanding of his or her own personal safety, the safety of others, ability to safely judge and navigate a community, and executive functioning skills when developing specific goals.
The downside of parents or professionals not assuming a child or teen with disabilities is competent is that it can create a very anxious or fearful young person. They may be fearful of new experiences or hesitant to try new things or go new places. They may be less flexible and very resistant to change and have difficulty adapting when change occurs. They can also have low self-confidence and self-esteem issues.
Today, I am proud that I can take care of my own apartment and Thomas and manage my schedule by myself (mostly). My success has a lot to do with what my parents believed about me and taught me, and the high expectations they set for me when I was young.
I’m excited to try new things and see what I can accomplish, and I want to help other families realize that their kids can do that, too.