Seeing the Destination: Independence

Andy finished his shift at the grocery store last week and headed over to the Mexican restaurant in the same strip mall. He was hungry after working about 15 hours that week and decided to treat himself to a meal. Dad was planning on picking him up, so Andy texted him and invited him for lunch. They had to sort through some communication challenges since Andy didn’t know the name of the restaurant, and Andy resolved it by taking a photo of the menu and sending it to his dad, but it only took a few minutes and some ingenuity to solve the confusion.

And there he sat … a young man who had ordered a chile relleno lunch platter and a Coke after a long week at work. Andy assumed he was capable of doing that on his own, and the staff at the restaurant assumed he was capable too. He waved his dad to come over to the table, asked the server to bring his dad a Coke, and paid the bill himself with his own debit card.

These moments of ordinariness are what we are striving for when we advocate for inclusion and employment … so that a young man with intellectual disabilities can work at a job he has chosen for himself, buy himself a lunch that he has chosen for himself, and invite his friends and family to join him.

Sometimes it can be scary as parent of a son or daughter with an intellectual disability. We worry about whether people will take advantage of our loved one; we worry about whether other people will be unkind; we worry about our son or daughter wisely spending their money or getting lost or being unable to communicate their needs or location; we worry about them being safe. And it’s true, there are risks involved with independence, and we do need to create scaffolding. Maybe that means providing a monthly stipend of money our son or daughter can access at one time. Maybe that means having them send us pictures of receipts to help them calculate a tip or installing “Find Friends” as an app on their phone to be able to find each other. Maybe it means following them to work on a bike the first ten times before they do it on their own and establishing trusted contacts in our community and at their workplace.

We can set up some of that scaffolding while also supporting those important steps toward independence, but there is also dignity in risk because we end up placing trust and confidence in our son or daughter when we support them in taking those steps toward independence. Ultimately, we want to help them get as close as possible to competitive employment, independent living, and healthy adult relationships, and we can work together to figure out what next step they can take to get there.

And sometimes that means not being freaked out when we realize our son isn’t waiting for us outside the grocery store to pick him up from work. Instead, we get to enjoy a Coke together and appreciate that he has the confidence to sit down and order a meal at a restaurant that he can pay for himself with his own money–and then look forward to the next step he wants to take toward independence.