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Creativity Without Competition: The Pleasures of Working with People with Developmental Disabilities


The urge to create, and the joy that comes with creative expression, is universal. What creativity gives us is the ability to generate alternatives. We learn to think laterally. Creativity helps us solve problems, explore and comprehend the world.

People with developmental disabilities need to navigate their world just as we all do, but they may have fewer resources with which to find solutions and solve problems. However, they do have creativity, and they do have the ability to learn. And maybe better than anyone, they know how to suspend judgment and leave competition behind.

This is one of the joys of working with the people we support. They have not forgotten how to approach the world with delight. They don’t judge as easily as the rest of the world. When they make something, they put their heart into it, and they almost always plan to give their creation to someone they love, as a gift. The best part of creating is sharing.

As we mature, we learn to evaluate our work critically. We learn to pass judgment before the rest of the world passes judgment. Over time, we learn to stop taking risks with our creative work, because taking risks can lead to judgment, rejection, and failure. The ability to explore and comprehend the world through creative expression fades and blows away in the wind.

We can get it back, though. Working with people who do not have our same degree of sensitivity to failure, who are willing to take creative risks, can remind us of the joys of working freely.

Heuristic learning is experiential. We learn by doing, and we use those experiences to take short-cuts the next time we face the same situation. We call it common sense, or using rules of thumb. By understanding how it works, we can help developmentally disabled people learn their own ways to find mental shortcuts. One of the easiest–and hardest!–heuristic exercises is a problem-solver. If you can’t solve a problem, draw a picture of it.

For many of us, just that sentence causes an immediate, whole body freeze! For people with developmental disabilities, sometimes they haven’t learned to stop taking risks for fear of failure. They’re willing to try.
Competition is also a value that many people learn in school, but that has very little benefit for people with developmental disabilities. The new paradigm is that trying, that making an effort is the purpose and the measure of success. Everyone’s artwork is displayed; everyone gets recognition. With competition and the judgment it entails off the table, many people find that they are free to experiment and take risks in their creative work. If the result of creative work isn’t as important as the problem-solving and heuristic learning that happens in the brain while we create, then we can just explore, create, make, talk, get muddy, get messy, and solve the problems of the world.

For information on Helping People to ASPIRE HIGHER by becoming a Direct Support Professional at ACLD, apply online at www.acld.org. An EOE m/f/d/v.