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Building connections and community for teens with disabilities

Katherine Carol Special Needs Expert, Author, Presenter and Consultant Tango Consulting and The Shining Beautiful Series

We live in a vastly interconnected world. So why is it that so many people with disabilities find themselves disconnected?

In today’s work and social environments, connections mean opportunity, as well as the ability to form and influence communities. This often leads to a more meaningful life. Connections and community not only help build powerful economic futures for all of us, but help us to move past online job postings, HR departments and barriers to employment. The richness of these connections translate into social capital and often determine future opportunities.

It is vital for individuals with disabilities to strengthen connections and build inclusive communities, leading to effective self-determination, employment and a prosperous future. This article offers advice for teens and young adults with disabilities embarking on the journey to a brighter future.


Do dream big and create a prosperous vision

Relationships matter, especially in uncertain times. As you save and plan for the future, consider increasing your child’s portfolio of friends. The goal is to develop enough social capital to develop strong community connections. These connections will prove valuable as you move forward in person-centered planning--the ongoing problem-solving process used to help people with disabilities plan for their future. In person-centered planning, groups of people focus on an individual and that person’s vision of what they would like to do in the future.

Examples of dreaming big and creating a prosperous vision for teens and young adults with disabilities include moving into one’s own place and eventually owning a home, starting one’s own business selling handmade crafts, becoming a paid national presenter, developing leadership skills, joining organizations and boards, and owning one’s own van—even though they may not drive.

Do be passionate and committed to your vision

Expect returns on your investment. Believe you can defy the odds. Take time to sit down at your local coffee shop with a latte and watch how people connect and interact. Notice their customs and language. Take the opportunity to comment on another customer’s sports jersey, talk to the barista about her hobbies, ask about another person’s latest technology or compliment someone on her purse. Consider this to be job development 101. It is all about the connections we make. It won’t be long before you and your family are the community connectors helping others to develop new friendships and opportunities.

Do focus on competencies

Too often, individuals with disabilities and their families focus only on disabilities--rather than abilities. Ask yourself how you describe your child to others. It is easy to describe children with disabilities by the labels the school system and medical professions use for diagnostic and funding purposes. As soon as you have filled out school forms and applied for Social Security, let go of the label. Labels can act like a chain holding you and your family back from a brighter future.

To help concentrate on competencies, share pictures of the cool things you and your family members do together. Bring a photo album or use your smartphone or iPad. Take pictures of any summer jobs, hang outs with friends, crafts or sports that your child loves to take part in. Show your kids being active members of their community.

Do become a regular

Connecting is not a one-time event. Relationships are built over time. Ask where people hang out who have similar interests as your son or daughter. These are the places where you need to be. Try to be there on the same day and time because many others have a routine. Once you are a regular, you will become part of the routine and become accepted into that particular community.

When people see that you look beyond your child’s disability, they will do the same.
So have a latte, look around at the people, get out a pen and paper, and start brainstorming about the places you visit. Think of all the people you talk to in a week, including bankers, hairdressers, realtors, mechanics, coaches and pastors.

People need to know more about your dreams for your children. And you need to know more about them. Most likely, they know someone who can get your child closer to a job, internship or other opportunity. This is how we build social capital.


Do not overlook the need to be clear about what you want

Ask everyone in your network if they know someone who might be able to help with an internship, a work trial or a job. Even if it is only for a few hours a week, it can help provide experience, as well as a way to build a portfolio and resume. Work trials and job shadowing are excellent ways to open doors to employment because employers do not have to make a commitment before they are ready. The intention is getting paid work. Volunteer work is a way to explore future careers and build connections. Be clear on whether you are pursuing paid work or volunteer opportunities--or both.

Either way, you can discover so much about what your child with disabilities needs in order to be successful. Little things can make a difference in job success. Is the job environment too noisy and distracting? Too isolated? The work task might be easy, but the work environment might be difficult.

Always be on the lookout for other opportunities. For example, perhaps there is a co-worker who could offer job coaching for extra money. This technique is great for increasing social networks, developing new friendships and finding employment.

Do not believe you must do it alone

You can’t do it alone. Believe and trust that there is someone out there who wants to make a difference in the world and make it a better place. It may take several attempts to find these people, but they do exist.

Do not forget to pace yourself

You do not have to get it all done at once. Progress will ebb and flow. Remember that this is a marathon, and not a sprint. While you will make great progress in a short time, it may slow down to a snail’s pace at other times. Like life, people come and go, jobs change and the world changes. So pace yourself.

Do not lose hope

Think of hope as help, optimism, patience and excitement. Parents and kids should never lose hope and give up. Parents play a valuable role in assisting their family member with a disability. They help build a strong portfolio of social capital and connections that will pay off dearly in the future.

Jumping cartoon

As parents raising children with special needs, you can do this. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, get some rest and do some fun things just for you. Who knows? You may meet someone in your yoga group, while fly fishing or in a writing circle that provides an opportunity for your teen or young adult.

Building social capital has to start with families. Think of yourself as leading the way and working with other agencies as collaborators. Families have been building networks from the moment their children were diagnosed with a disability. After all, what mother or father has not brought together a team of doctors, negotiated with insurance companies, navigated benefits systems and worked with school systems to tailor educational resources to meet their child’s needs?

More expert advice about Caring for Teens and Adults with Disabilities

Photo Credits: © Franz Pfluegl -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Katherine CarolSpecial Needs Expert, Author, Presenter and Consultant

Katherine Carol has over three decades of experience working with people with disabilities as a special educator, supported employment program director and organizational/management consultant facilitating national systems change projects. Known...

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