Special Needs Planning: How Should We Measure Success?

Phillip C. Clark, Founder & President, ENABLE Special Needs Planning
Phillip C. Clark, Founder & President, ENABLE Special Needs Planning

Written by: Phillip C. Clark, Founder & President, ENABLE Special Needs Planning

In today’s culture, images and stories of success are at our fingertips 24/7 through social media. It’s easy to get caught up in comparing ourselves to others.

On the one hand, social media can be a source of inspiration and motivation, showing us pictures of other people succeeding in areas in which we aspire to be successful, too. On the other hand, we could look at those same photos, and feel like we don’t measure up…and we never will.

I’m sure you can relate to some of this:

We follow people who inspire us to cook more delicious and healthy recipes, people who find ways to work out in a more time efficient and enjoyable manner, people who are better business owners, or better spouses, or better parents… and we want to be like them!

But how much comparison can we really take before the social media influencer who was once our source of motivation turns into an ugly habit of constantly comparing ourselves and getting discouraged because our lives aren’t as ‘perfect’ as the people we follow?

While we all know that NO ONE is really perfect (or as perfect as they appear on social media), it can be tough to remind ourselves of that reality when we’re struggling through daily challenges at work and with our families…while the Instagram and Facebook “celebrities” seem to have it all put together and figured out. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

So how should we measure success in our lives? And in particular for this post, how should we measure success in the life of our loved ones with special needs?

It’s completely normal and acceptable to aspire for our loved ones to go to college.

But what if there are better opportunities out there for him or her?

It’s ok to strive for independence.

But what should independence actually look like for your child?

The easiest way for me to explain my thoughts is by sharing about my own family’s experiences with my younger sister, Sarah, who has Down syndrome.

A Sarah Story

If you have been following ENABLE for very long, I hope it’s quickly become apparent to you that I’m incredibly proud of Sarah! In my opinion, Sarah is incredibly successful and very independent. I often brag about her job (teaching second graders to read!) and I know it brings her great joy to work with kids.

If you didn’t know any more than this about my family, you might assume that Sarah lives on her own in her own apartment, that she has her own transportation that allows her to travel to and from work, and that her job provides the support she needs to enjoy living that type of lifestyle.

Sarah with her Special Olympics medals

In reality, at almost 30 years of age, Sarah still lives at home with my parents. Her “job” is more a volunteer position in the second grade classroom so she doesn’t bring home any real income.

If I were to compare Sarah, her living situation, and her job to what our culture, popular press, and social media tell us success should look like—it would be very easy to say we did something wrong. We planned wrong. We could have done more (or be doing more!) to give her the life that she should have.

But. Sarah loves her life. She feels purposeful every day because she is able to interact with children in a classroom setting. She feels empowered that she is able to teach them a new skill (reading)—a skill that when she was born, many doctors warned my parents she’d never learn to do herself!

Sarah’s success isn’t dictated by what our society emphasizes. Sarah loves her life because she has the ability to be purposeful and impactful. She makes a difference in the lives of others. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

So what about you?

What does a successful life look like for your loved one with special needs?

Is your goal that they live a life that is impactful? A life where he or she feels purposeful?

For your child, this life might include going to college! Or—it might mean finding another, better opportunity that fits his or her desires.

For your child, this life might include living independently! Or—it might mean thriving in a loving, caring, and encouraging environment with family members.

For your child, this life might be sustained through gainful employment that allows him or her to pay bills and not rely on SSI payments each month. Or—it might mean having a volunteer position that brings joy, meaning, and purpose to his or her life each and every day.

For all of us: If we seek to measure our success by comparing ourselves to what others tell us success should look like—we’re going to wear ourselves out trying and never actually feel like we’ve made it. There will always be more to achieve, more ways to succeed.

But…what if we shift our view of what it means to be successful…

What if instead of comparing ourselves to others, we measure our success by whether we are living up to our own fullest potential?

What if we define success by the positive impact we make in the lives of other people?

What if being successful means finding ways to use our unique abilities and skills to live a purposeful life that brings us joy and makes a difference?

I’d much rather define success like that.

What about you?

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