Myths About People with Developmental Disabilities

I’ve worked with individuals with developmental disabilities for about three years now, and it is a population I find vast amounts of love and joy. With this love and joy however, negativity and ignorance is possessed by many. It is with this writing that I hope to break any false ideas you have about people with developmental disabilities, so that you may see the beauty and potential with this group of people.

A disclaimer beforehand: I have worked with individuals with developmental disabilities who are independently living, working, cooking, driving, and having the ability to speak and physically function like anyone else. I’ve also worked with individuals with developmental disabilities who are unable to speak and wheelchair bound. This post is primarily geared towards the interactions I’ve witnessed with the more independent individuals. Those who are nonverbal and in wheelchairs have another whole set of myths to bust.

They are stupid.

A lot of people are under the impression that an IQ test completed at a young age determines a person’s abilities for the rest of his or her life. This is false. People with developmental disabilities have the ability to understand essentially anything. You may have to adjust the words you use or the way you say something, but this does not mean they are any less intelligent. This simply implies that they have an alternative learning experience. Many of the individuals I have worked with and been alongside are whip-smart and clever, and they become even more so when others take the time to encourage them, collaborate with them on their learning, and teach them new and interesting things.
We need to talk to them like they’re children.

I work with adults with disabilities, so I say this here because many times, these individuals are treated like they are a child and everyone else is their parent. Strangers use baby talk with them, and automatically begin talking with this offensive tone as soon as they are assumed to be “different.” Baby talk does not solve anything. It does not increase one’s capacity to understand what you’re saying. It is possible to have a normal conversation, even if the individual is non-verbal or has a speech impediment. That does not mean you have to talk to them like they any younger.

They are hard of hearing. 

Too many times have strangers conversed with the people I work with, and just like with baby-talk, automatically begin talking louder. Unless the person has told you that they cannot hear you, or you know them well enough to know that they need you to speak at a higher volume, it is unacceptable and rude. They can hear like anyone else. They can carry on a conversation like anyone else. Talking louder merely points out your ignorance.

You can tell by looking at someone.

You cannot always tell if someone has a developmental disability just by looking at them. Many times, with those who are more independent in his or her daily living skills and functioning, they look COMPLETELY, 100% “NORMAL.” Just like your neighbor, your cousin, or any random stranger. At times, you may have a better idea due to some diagnoses having  specific physical characteristics accompanied with other cognitive factors – This can be seen with Down Syndrome and Smith-Magenis Syndrome. This is not true for all disabilities however, and no matter what a person’s physical appearance is, it ought not influence your actions towards them.

It’s all genetic.

Nope. Not at all. An example here would be the chromosomal abnormalities in Down Syndrome. Many people with disabilities were born “normal,” but experienced high fevers, or a traumatic birth or pregnancy term. At times, some gain a disability due to abuse, neglect, or a serious physical trauma (like a car accident). Yes, genetics does play a part, even in some disabilities more than others. But it’s not the whole story – Just like how a disability is not the whole story for a person with one.

They all need help the majority of the time.

A big part of my job, as a person who works with people with developmental disabilities, is to support their daily life and assist them in accomplishing their goals. If I am being honest, they do not need my assistance many times. A thought to keep in mind is that they are human. They make mistakes, become angry and frustrated, and sometimes want to stay in bed and binge-watch Netflix. Just like any other human. As a person who tries to help them, I often need to remind myself that it is okay for them to have a break, and not always be chasing goals and checking off tasks. It is okay to miss one day of doing laundry or washing dishes (because the people I work with do complete those tasks on their own). Many times, if we give them help now, and assist them in learning something new or accomplishing a task, they will be able to do it with no help in the future. Growth happens in people with disabilities, just as it happens in us as we chase our dreams and try to live healthy, productive, and fulfilling lives. They are no different.


Use this post as a friendly reminder to be kind to strangers, and treat every person you encounter like a human being. Individuals with developmental disabilities have vast potential and are accomplishing more than many people without disabilities. It is time we break these stereotypes and give these people the respect they have deserved for a long time.


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