What Matters Most?

Using your strengths to impact well-being

What You are Missing When You See a Person with a Disability

Celebrate World Down Syndrome Day by celebrating the strengths in all people.

Imagine you are walking down the street and you see:

  • A person in a wheelchair
  • The facial features of a person with Down syndrome
  • Repetitive twirling behavior of someone with autism
  • Hyperactive and impulsive behavior of someone with ADHD

What do you focus on? What plays out in your mind as you observe this person?

You notice what is different. You see a deficit. You focus on the problem. Probably, you have thoughts about how the person is limited in different ways. You might have an emotional reaction of pity.

It’s OK. Be honest about your initial reaction. But then, move beyond it. Here’s how:

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Remember that all human beings have strengths of character. At least 24 of them, according to recent scientific findings. These character strengths make all of us different. Idiosyncratic. Unique. We all have different combinations of strengths and these strengths will come across different for each person in a given situation. You, regardless of who you are and regardless of your comfort level with people with disabilities, can spot strengths in all of the examples noted above.

And, if there was ever a day to start spotting strengths, it is today. Today is World Down Syndrome Day. The numbers of today’s date—March 21st (or 3-21) represent the three copies of chromosome 21 which is unique to Down syndrome. This day promotes awareness and understanding of Down syndrome. Thus, why not promote the character strengths of people with Down syndrome? Take time to understand the unique strengths of character in each person.

I recently gave a presentation on character strengths to a group of parents of children who have Down syndrome for the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Cincinnati. Here are some insights that flowed from the parents, many relating to strengths-spotting in people with disabilities:

  • All people with disabilities have character strengths, without exception. Look for them. Use this list here to get you started. I guarantee you will find them.
  • Some strengths will be easier to spot than others. E.g., a person displaying a high degree of zest or humor or performing kind acts.
  • While any of the 24 strengths can be spotted in any person, some strengths will likely be more prevalent than others (e.g., honesty), while some strengths will likely be less prevalent than others (e.g., social intelligence). Further research is needed to support these points. And, these findings will vary based on each individual and each disability or condition.
  • Paying attention—mindfully—matters. A curious and open mindfulness helps us see the best qualities in our children.

So, indeed, when you see a person with Down syndrome or another disability, go ahead and notice what is different. But, instead of your focus being on their deficits, make it about their character strengths!

Learn more about character strengths here.

Note: I will be presenting on character strengths among people with intellectual disabilities at the major convention—National Down Syndrome Congress—in Indianapolis in July this year. I’ll be honored to co-present with a leading researcher/author in the field of intellectual disabilities, Karrie Shogren. Karrie has a number of books on the importance of self-determination among people with Down syndrome.

Note: The fields of positive psychology and character strengths have work to do in bringing the latest science and practice to people with disabilities. There is reason for optimism that this is happening. One reason is a new scholarly book by Michael Wehmeyer that came out last year called The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Disability; this book calls for researchers, educators, and practitioners to bring greater focus to what is best in people.

Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D., is the education director at the VIA Institute on Character.

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