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The Power of Expectations

How to Set Expectations for Individuals with Disabilities

Expectations can be tricky. A balancing act is always in play. Set expectations too high or set unrealistic expectations, and the expectee can get discouraged and stop working toward the goal. Set expectations too low, and the result may be the same – the person quits trying – but for different reasons.

Why expectations are important

According to K.Y. Sanders at the National Institutes of Health (NIH): “Lowered expectations and overprotection of the individual with a disability can cause lowered self-esteem which can result in a lifetime of underachievement and failure to reach their full potential. Both lowered expectations and overprotection are forms of discrimination. Internalization of discrimination causes the person with a disability to believe that they are less capable than a person without a disability.”

Sanders shows scientific proof of Henry Ford’s famous saying: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” What an individual accomplishes is dictated in large part by what they think they’re capable of achieving. Consider that iconic story, The Little Engine that Could. From “I think I can, I think I can” to “I thought I could, I thought I could,” the little engine had high expectations for himself, but not unrealistic ones.

How to set expectations

Daniel Kish, a man who has dedicated his life to improving independence for individuals with vision impairments, said, “Our number one goal is independence. So, if someone with a disability wants to achieve something, we should give them the tools they need to succeed and then expect success. Your loved one will never achieve anything if you constantly expect them to fail. But obviously, independence can be a slow process so that’s why we provide help where necessary.”

Always keep expressions of expectations positive, encouraging, and nonspecific.

  • Positive – We’re not talking unrealistically positive, here. It may be better to guide an individual who is passionate about basketball towards the Special Olympics instead of the NBA. If we think outside the box, we see people with disabilities merely as individuals being forced to accomplish goals in ways that may be different from the ways of conventional society.
  • Encouraging – No one truly knows what another person is capable of, sometimes not even the person, so expressions of expectations have to reflect that. It is critical to encourage without putting qualifiers on the encouragement. Offering to help with exercise routines, or to take the person to a therapy or education session provides encouragement, too.
  • Nonspecific – The human brain is fabulously adept at creating and sticking to self-fulfilling prophecies. Or proving someone else wrong. For some people, the phrase, “You’ll never [fill in the blank] again” is like waving a red rag at a bull. They think, “Oh, yeah? I’ll show you!” and end up being able to [fill in the blank] again. Other people take the pronouncement as an absolute truth and never [fill in the blank] again.

In order to formulate the best possible expectations for someone, a consultation with one of the people at RISE,, is always a good place to start. To begin the process, simply complete and submit a contact form. RISE will take it from there.