The Life Paths of a Person with an Intellectual Disability

The typical life path of a person with an intellectual disability is not apparent to most, unless you are a parent, sibling or someone who deeply knows an intellectually disabled person.

When you have an intellectual disability (and the same can be said for many disabled people) you are shepherded down a different, ‘special’ path to the rest of us.

This is a story of choosing not to travel that ‘special’ path.

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You arrived in this world and your parents were very excited to see you. You brought joy and wonder to all around you and catapulted your little family into a new and exciting phase of life.

But soon, paid people told your parents to engage you in early intervention, with the view that if you do enough therapies, somehow the ‘problem’ of your intellectual disability will go away.

You become the subject of tests, assessments, reports and other invasions, whose sole purpose is to describe how wrong you are.

Next, you’ll be told that there isn’t enough ‘resources’ in the local kindy and you should therefore go to the special school several suburbs away. This is where people like you go, they know what to do there.

And you go to the special school several suburbs away, picked up by a mini van full of other people like you, and spend the day with other children like you, having more therapies done to you.

Your speech is delayed but paid people insist on more speech therapy while at the same time, putting you in a class with other children whose speech is delayed. And then wonder why your speech isn’t improving. Or your social skills, along with the other children who also have difficulty with social skills, aren’t improving either. It must be you. It must be your intellectual disability. It couldn’t possibly be the low expectations of your teachers, or that you haven’t got other kids around you modelling it for you.

But that’s OK because your parents have switched on by now and realized that special school wasn’t working for you and decided to enrol you in a local school with other kids, and see how that might work out for you. But they didn’t know that despite the local school’s policies on inclusion and ‘everyone welcome’ that actually, you aren’t to be included and you’re certainly not welcome.

So instead, you do find yourself in another local school after your perplexed parents pushed hard and then it became apparent that your speech and social skills improved immensely, you gained friends and started going to parties, and you even began to read and gain a semblance of an education.

Fast forward a few years and you survive high school and find that there are paid people who can help you get a job and a home. But the job is with other people like you, doing things that bore you, and pays you so little that its akin to slave labour, and illegal for everyone else. But you are told this is where people like you go to work. And people like you can’t possibly contribute in the workforce as you aren’t as ‘productive’ as other people.

So instead, you start your own business and with the right people to help you, get a large number of clients and earn a decent income. You even pay tax. When you get tired of that after a few years, you sell the business and then work for someone else doing the work that you enjoy and get paid a full wage.

You are told by paid people that people like you can only travel in groups of other people like you, to the same place and doing the same things together. Even though you have nothing in common with these people and you don’t always want to do all the things that they are telling you to do.

So instead, you ask a friend to travel overseas with you and have adventures that excite you, chosen by you and created lifelong memories and international friendships.

And other people tell you that people like you also live with other people like you, together, in a house several suburbs away. Away from your neighbourhood and family, with people you don’t know and have nothing in common with. Paid people say you have to go out with these people at the same time, go to the same places and play bowls with each other and eat together. You could get angry and display ‘challenging behaviours’ because you have difficulty communicating your frustration at being made to live a half-life.

So instead, you move into your own house and have a housemate who respects your space. With the right support, you learn to cook, look after your house and have friends over for BBQs and drinks. Christmas gatherings with the neighbours and housewarming parties. Neighbours become friends and are there for you if things get a bit tricky. You feel safe because people know you and miss you when you aren’t there.

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Centuries of history sit behind the segregation and congregation of disabled people, and left unchallenged, society blindly repeats what has gone before.

All people with or without a disability deserve to live a full and meaningful life, but I have seen that often someone who lives with a disability is not valued enough to be afforded the opportunity.

So instead, let’s open our minds and imagine and create something better. A world that includes and values all.

A curious seeker who ventured down the road less travelled, with a burning desire for social change