Best Social Welfare Programs, Adults with Learning Disabilities and Self Concept

This article is part of a series of best social welfare programs. Here I shall be focusing upon self concept. This is very much a principal that is ideal for everyone. Much of this evaluation can be applied and understood as fundamentals not only for adults with learning disabilities but for every human being no matter what culture, nationality or creed.



This is about everyone living and being giving opportunities and a chance to be their best. I am glad that adults with learning disabilities are now included in this.


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It is unfortunate that for many years adults with learning disabilities have been institutionalised and considered second class citizens. There was not much consideration to their self concept but things are changing and it is with the help of social welfare programs like this that this change is starting to take effect.

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Why Might It Be Useful To Consider Self Concept In Trying To Understand The Experiences of Adults with Learning Disabilities?

Self concept may be defined as: 'a composite image of what we think we are, what we can achieve, what we think others think of us and what we would like to be' (Burns, 1979). Furthermore, can be thought of as the ability to look inwards and reflect on ourselves which; 'appears to be a universal characteristic of all human beings; though such awareness changes and develops' (K262, Open University, Workbook 1, p.29).

Courtesy of Boazproject.co.uk Giving adults with learning disabilities real and realistic work opportunities in a supportive environment.
Courtesy of Boazproject.co.uk Giving adults with learning disabilities real and realistic work opportunities in a supportive environment.

The capacity to look inwards is reflected by the language we use, how one communicates and what is thought and felt. These processes of communication and, as will be discussed, human awareness, are completely interwoven in the self.

In order to understand the experiences of people with learning disabilities, self concept is important because it can help people achieve their full potential.

Self Concept is about Self Image and Self Esteem


Self concept may be thought of in two parts:

  • Self Image - The overall view the person has of themselves, the analysis of who they are and their body image.
  • Self Esteem - The value of self worth that the individual places upon themselves as a whole or single facet of their self image.

This idea of self concept fits neatly into ideas on a people centred approach in the field of therapy. If you want to read more about this, please click on Psychology 101: Client Centered Therapy.

It, therefore, is not just for adults with learning disabilities but for all. This is how it should be - equality!

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It is all about balance.  Every action has a reaction and every negative experience has a positive learning from it.
It is all about balance. Every action has a reaction and every negative experience has a positive learning from it.

Negative Experiences = Positive Outcomes?

From negative experiences a great deal can be learned. This can make people stronger and increase the quality of their lives. However it is also about learning to see in a positive light - the glass, for example, being half full rather than half empty! From viewing and learning from experiences the gain can be great. Gains in:

  • A sense of security (about oneself, social relationships, and environment).
  • A sense of identity (knowledge of strengths, weaknesses, needs and self worth).
  • A sense of belonging (being able to identify with others in similar situations, for example).
  • A sense of purpose (social valued roles, work, motivation).
  • A sense of personal competence.

Coopersmith (1967) identified these as key elements to self esteem.

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As can be seen, therefore, the idea of 'self' is closely linked in understanding other's experiences whether people have a learning disability or not. Human awareness, maybe thought of as an awareness of self, others and their personal awareness.

Markova (1987) defined this in the following statement:

'We perceive, interpret and act on the basis of our understanding of each other's thoughts, abilities, emotions, intentions and actions, and at the same time we are aware that others can perceive, interpret and act on the basis of their understanding of our activities.'

Through interactions with others, we develop, create and change views of ourselves. The 'Self' is, therefore, socially constructed.

Other factors in considering the self in relation to people with learning disabilities, include the role of the imagination in self awareness, roles, individuals perception of self and social world at large, but more significantly, how one's concept is largely determined by the ways in which one is treated by significant others.

What is meant by this is that we respond in a manner for which we are treated. If, for example, we are treated in an aggressive manner, it is no surprise if we respond in a similar way. We reap what we sow. For an example of dealing with negative behaviour, please read an account here: How To Stop Verbal Abuse From An Angry Customer.

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Self Disclosure and Self Concept

Firstly, let me explain self disclosure? This is a technique where you share information about yourself as a real person including 'worts and all'. In being 'open' you may be seen as a real human being. This makes it easier for people to relate to you and by being 'genuine' people are more likely to relate to you. As you might imagine, this open way of communicating can improve relationship dynamics. This idea originated from the school of Humanistic psychology, particularly Sidney Jourard.

Self disclosure can effect self concept, however, especially if the information one is given is not kept confidential, and as such, may be thought of as a betrayal of trust. However, taking such risks may make the individual feel vulnerable, especially when there is a question to an individual's capabilities. It might also be questionable, when considering people with learning disabilities, to ascertain the level of awareness in understanding.

Today's methods of assessments centrals around a person centred approach which invariable means a level of self disclosure. For more on person centered approach, please click on: Psychology 101: Client Centered Therapy for more.

People with learning disabilities are now encouraged to attend care meetings, for example. This may affect self concept because it requires a level of openness from the client, making them feel vulnerable. Also self disclosure from pre-existing written assessments of the client can have a negative impact by exposing him/her via case histories resulting from negative perceptions by the writer. This might prejudice the reader.

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The self is not something one finds, it is something one creates. (Thomas Szaz (1920- ) Hungarian- born physician) Quote.

Self Concept and Communication

Self concept might be affected by communication. The effectiveness of the communication depends on the experience of others, perception and interpretation (it isn't what is said but the way that it is said, for example). It can be hard enough for people without special needs - harder and more confusing, perhaps, for people with learning disabilities. What is communication? Want to know more? Click Here.

Communication is the process of sharing meaning, thoughts, feelings and information. It is for human beings, an essential social activity. Difficulties in communication, therefore, may limit shared experiences. This may potentially result in limiting self concept.

Being controlling, over critical, over supportive, over rational, patronising, disconfirming (e.g. unanswered questions), empty reassurances and a sense of humour that denies others feelings, relationships or wishes. This is aggressive communication and can have a marked effect on self concept.

When considering assertive communication this can have a positive effect on self concept. In this instance such communication can have a positive affect on adults with learning disabilities. This enables the person to 'maintain self respect pursue happiness and the satisfaction of needs, defending their rights and personal space without abusing or dominating other people' (Bolton, 1979). So assertive communication is about respect and appreciation of the rights of others.

Submissive communication can have an effect on the self concept of adults with learning disabilities as there is a masking of true feelings, needs and ideas. This is not a good way to help build relationships and arriving at reasonable agreements.

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'We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done'.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Quote

So now we understand how important the right form of communication is as regards to its affects on adults with learning disabilities. But maybe we should not focus this too much on a specific section on the population. Inferring personality characteristics specifically on the basis that an adult has learning disabilities is biased and stereotypical.

'There was usually an attempt to unveil the common personality characteristics on which stereotyped views was based' (Thomas, 1982). Such stereotyped views may follow the individual and create typifications of the person with learning difficulties.

Racism can also be linked with such stereotypes. This is a behaviour which devalues a whole group of people, solely on the basis of race, colour or creed. An adult with learning disabilities and a member of a minority group, may endure further typification's upon the self concept.

Setting unrealistic goals, almost setting people up for failure, can have a marked effect on self concept, particularly for adults with learning disabilities. The goal might be considered 'normal' within our society, but for the individual may be unachieveable and humiliating.

Many adults with learning disabilities may have their own way of communication. An onlooker may see this as a negative or abnormal behaviour and respond negatively. This could, therefore, have an effect on the self concept of the adult concerned when the onas should be on the onlooker to understand this form of communication rather than be critical of it.

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I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing.”

Manic Street Preachers

Problems with Self Esteem and Self Concept? Check this out!

Self Concept in Relation to Identity

So what is this identity anyway? There has been many extensive studies and many different facets on the ideas of identity - too much for an article about self concept and adults with learning disabilities. However, I will briefly summerise identity, in the context of this article, as thus:

  • Linking internal thoughts, feelings and perceptions with the social;
  • Interaction with groups of similar identities;
  • Sharing commonalities with some people but different to others;
  • Identities evolve and change over time from experiences exerted upon it, whilst a balance is struck between social control and core beliefs.

As briefly mentioned, identity has importance to the self concept. It is thought that identification of self within own group aids the many facets of identity. This may have a detrimental effect to adults with learning disabilities as stereotyped characteristics may be adopted.

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Jill was a three year old girl with Downs Syndrome. She developed a negative self concept because she identified herself with others on the television who had profound and multiple disabilities. She, hence, stopped talking, temporarily and only regained her speech after witnessing positive identifications.

This is a true account of detrimental effects associated with identity. The knock on effect on the self concept was, therefore as a result of this identification.

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Leavesden Hospital, Hertfordshire - 'Mental Institution' Closed 1992/1993
Leavesden Hospital, Hertfordshire - 'Mental Institution' Closed 1992/1993

'I look forward confidently to the day when all who work for a living will be one with no thought to their separateness as Negroes, Jews, Italians or any other distinctions. This will be the day when we bring into full realization the American dream -- a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few; a dream of a land where men will not argue that the color of a man's skin determines the content of his character; a dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone, but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity; the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of the human personality'.

Martin Luther King

Self Concept in Relation to The System

When talking about self concept in relation to the system, what do I mean? Institutions may be thought of as intense and unresponsive, which can crucially affect self concept. The system is the institution in this context.

Many adults with learning disabilities can find themselves in powerless situations, lacking privacy. Such institutions adopt a medical approach, consisting of medically conceived ideas, interpretations and solutions. This is the opposite to the forementioned person centred approach. The medical approach, therefore, defines individuals in a 'sick role'.

'This influences people with learning difficulties because it effects the power of individuals to control their own lives. The impact, hence, increases dependency with stereotyped perceptions, leading to self fullfilling prophecies' (Edgerton, 1976; Ryan & Thomas, 1980).

The medical approach, is not about empowerment but disempowerment. It is a 'mother knows best' approach which takes away choice. This disempowerment from the system to adults with learning disabilities has a direct impact on self concept. This is also further strengthened with assessment as it is a document that formulates 'impressions and makes judgements about others' (Jones, 1970).

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Self Concept in Relation to the Educational Approach

Through and educational approach, self concept can be influenced quite extensively. The experience of education can influence adults with learning disability because:

  • Carefully devised teaching practices can help all people to progress to their full potential.
  • It recognises the development of basic social skills.
  • It forces the teacher to teach individually to special needs.
  • It opens individual's perspectives, but may have the effect of always living a 'learner' role.

But what about segregation from mainstream education? This might take away from the experience of a 'normal' school or further educational life. This, therefore, can have an affect on self concept because adults with learning disabilities might feel different and 'abnormal'.

On the other hand, mainstream education and integration thereof, may have a negative effect on the self concept. This might range from bullying, being segregated from their peers by their peers, thereby, leading to isolation to being accepted as just another child or adult.

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Social Welfare Programs: Self Concept and Adults with Learning Disabilities Conclusion

In order to conclude self concept, especially when we try to understand the experiences of adults with learning disabilities, it is important to emphasise that there should not be any difference in approach to those with special needs and ourselves. As this is one of my social welfare programs, I want to highlight some very important points essential to this. The approach to self concept is about respect, empathy and seeing through the eyes of others. As enablers and empowerers of adults with learning disabilities, it is important to assist in opening up a range of life style opportunities that is also available to the rest of the population. This is about equality and living an independent and 'ordinary life' (O'Brien).

© This work is covered under Creative Commons License

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Comments 4 comments

Rafini profile image

Rafini 6 years ago from Somewhere I can't get away from

Wow, a lot of information here. A couple observations:

If its true that through interactions with others we develop, create, change our view of ourselves - this means our 'self' is socially constructed. Wouldn't this make us 'people pleasers'? Which is considered to be submissive, or more accurately, non-assertive.

The open & genuine part about being related to - I have to argue. For me, anyway, being open and genuine brought the opportunity to be crushed. Not a good thing.

I don't know why this came up through this hub, but here it is: As far as I'm concerned, College Educated people are the WORST communicators! (my experiences have taught me this - no offense intended to anyone)

Thanks for making me think, again. lol


shazwellyn profile image

shazwellyn 6 years ago from Great Britain Author

Hi Rafini *wink* - 'Wouldn't this make us 'people pleasers'? Which is considered to be submissive, or more accurately, non-assertive'. I would think that depends on the people we are talking with and what they influence us with. For example, would we be 'people pleasers' if we are activists? We would certainly please one group of people, but would upset another group.

This reminds me of something... 'one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist'.... just a thought.

'I don't know why this came up through this hub, but here it is: As far as I'm concerned, College Educated people are the WORST communicators!'.. You are lovely Rafini, but for you to think this makes me wonder what sort of hell you must have gone through in your life. Whatever it was, they have opened a can of worms which they have negelected to tidy away. *hugs*


Rafini profile image

Rafini 6 years ago from Somewhere I can't get away from

Heya shazwellyn, :D had to come back ya know! lol

one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist-----okay, I get your point. But I still think saying to be a socially constructed self is another way of saying Be a People Pleaser.

I shouldn't have generalized regarding college educated people. Because really, doctors, counselors, therapists, etc. (highly educated people, ?), are all college educated and I've had no trouble with any of them. My troubles have been with lower level college educated people, such as: a co-worker, my manager, my managers manager, customer service people, etc. What I've found is - these lower level college educated people make second guesses and assumptions about someone else's actions and words all while doing their best to deceive and manipulate the 'little people' who work for them or alongside them.

(most of my hubs go into detail 'about me', helping me to write my life story - the part I mentioned on your communications hub, about quitting my job, will come much later)

BTW - am I supposed to be the can of worms? lol ((hugs))back at ya!! :D


shazwellyn profile image

shazwellyn 6 years ago from Great Britain Author

You should read my hub on victims and controllers in care Rafini lol For some people it is all about control:)

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