I’d like to have friends. It’s really hard. I’ve tried lots of groups but none have worked out. I get really worried about if anyone is going to like me and if anyone is going to have things in common with me and it goes around in my mind and it’s hard to decide to go, so a lot of times I don’t. (O’Connor & Fowkes, 2000)
Despite common perceptions that people with intellectual disability have a lot of family assistance, or that they have support from service providers or other community organisations, many people with intellectual disability experience extreme levels of social isolation. Like poverty, social isolation is both a cause and a consequence of a range of difficult life situations that many people with intellectual disability commonly experience.
Many people with intellectual disability grow up with limited family support, or within the out-of-home-care system. They may have limited capacity and resources to self-advocate and develop supportive connections with others in their local community, and are often socially restricted to organisationally-based social activities with other people with intellectual disability. This often results in a reliance on support systems and a narrow range of opportunities for developing meaningful relationships outside of those systems. Social exclusion is an important factor in explaining the social isolation of individuals. While many people with intellectual disability might be highly visible in the community, and be seen to access services and community resources, opportunities for meaningful engagement and the full range of human relationships with others outside of the ‘disability service system’ are limited (Craig & Bigby, 2010).
Prejudice against people with intellectual disability is common, and there are often major challenges to the inclusion of people with intellectual disability in the social networks of people without intellectual disability. The first experiences that people without disability have of people with intellectual disability are crucial in setting their personal attitudes towards disability, and these experiences will encourage them to either exclude or include people in their social networks (Craig & Bigby, 2010).
People with intellectual disability themselves identify numerous personal and social barriers to community inclusion, such as:
- Being ignored and not accepted by others (people not talking to them)
- Having limited community facilities and opportunities for social exchange
- Transport and financial issues that decrease their access to social venues and events
- Being held back by service staff who prioritise other activities over meaningful community membership (Abbott & McConkey, 2006).