A guide to developing life skills in adults with intellectual disability

28 March 2017

Would you like to encourage your loved one to live a more independent and socially active lifestyle, and build their confidence levels in the process?

Many adults with disabilities (and their carers) get overwhelmed when they think of the prospect of change, or learning a whole new way of life. But it doesn’t have to be one “big” thing. In fact, better results are often achieved when people take it one step at a time and make small changes to their lifestyle.

Many life skills are easily attainable if you know where to start.

So with that in mind, we take a look at some essential life skills for adults with disabilities that you and your loved one might consider giving a go.


A great place to start is with health.

Living a healthy lifestyle is an integral part of quality of life. Life skills such as healthy eating, exercise, personal hygiene, and safe sex, enable adults with disabilities can make you feel better, look better and enhance long-term health and quality of life .

Let’s take a closer look at the key areas of healthy living:

Personal Hygiene

Personal appearance and hygiene can often help boost confidence in social situations. In fact, looking and smelling good will help nurture a sense of personal pride, help your loved one feel more accepted and can result in praise from others..

The key to maintaining a healthy personal hygiene level is all about daily habits. While many of these may already be in place, sometimes small additions can make a big difference. It’s the little things that count and can add up to create a happier, healthier and more confident individual.

Daily habits such as showering, brushing teeth, using deodorant and perfume/aftershave, getting dressed and combing hair, may seem simple, but tcan significantly improve personal hygiene and confidence.

Perhaps you could start to involve yourself in these daily habits with your loved one so you’re modelling the behaviours for them.

Eating and Cooking Healthy Food

It’s common for adults with disabilities, especially intellectual disabilities, to maintain a fairly unhealthy diet. Often this is because of a lack of education and knowledge about the benefits of healthy eating.

A healthy diet has many obvious, and several not-so-obvious, benefits. From a physical perspective, eating healthy foods creates more energy, helps maintain a healthy weight and prevents the increased risk of illness or disease later in life.

Psychologically, healthy eating can make an individual feel more confident in the way they look and interact with people.

A good way to kick start a healthy diet and eating routine is to take a cooking class. Not only will this help your loved one start to understand what foods can go together to make for a tasty meal, but it will also build up new cooking skills that may even inspire them to take it up as a hobby.

Get involved, start eating and cooking healthy yourself, and hopefully it will encourage your loved one to come along for the journey!


Everyone has a different level of ability when it comes to exercise, so you don’t need to encourage your loved one to get up and run a marathon tomorrow. Daily exercise can start with something as simple as a walk to the shops, or a few arm raises.

Small habits such as this can boost energy levels and over time will improve body image, strength and wellbeing.

To make sure your loved one has the most appropriate exercise program for their ability, contact an occupational therapist or support worker who can help you put together a plan.

Sexual health

Sexuality is a normal part of life. We’re all human, and experience feelings and desires that drive us toward sexual activity.

However, with sexual activity comes responsibility. The responsibility to treat others with respect, and the responsibility to understand and practice sexual health.

Adults with disabilities, just like anyone else, can have rewarding sexual relationships. But in order to do so, they may need some additional support and information.

Sexual health for adults with disabilities is a large topic in itself, but there are some basic principles that can provide an appropriate starting point:

  • Help them understand and believe that they can have a fulfilling sex life
  • Appreciate that a disability can at times hinder sexual activity, especially if it is physical
  • Encourage them to seek information about what is appropriate, and what isn’t when it comes to sexual activity from a social and legal perspective
  • Educate them on the potential implications of sexual activity; such as pregnancy, Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), consent and emotional trauma.

For more information, you may like to read this report produced by the Victorian Government on intellectual disabilities and sexuality.


Healthy living is the starting point for the fun things that can come from day-to-day life. Because in the end that’s what we are all striving for; a happy and fulfilling lifestyle.

When your loved one is healthy, it enables them to make the most of other activities such as shopping, household chores and community hobbies.


Shopping is a great way to interact in the community, improve communication and social skills, as well as learning important life skills such as money handling.

Perhaps you could combine a trip to the shops with a bit of exercise, by choosing to walk to the train station or local store with your loved one.

On the first few shopping adventures it may help with confidence levels if you go along for support. But after a while this may be something your loved one can do themselves, growing their independence.

Household activities

Washing, ironing, cleaning or gardening may be the type of life skills your loved one can start to build around the house.

Much like all of the other skills mentioned, the real benefit they will get from working on these skills is the confidence that they can learn new things. This confidence will be invaluable when they seek to approach other areas of development.

Plus, you never know, they may actually really enjoy doing some of these things around the house!

Hobbies and sport

What type of hobbies does your loved one enjoy doing? Have they considered playing sport?

Sport can be a great way to develop friends, communication skills and stay fit and healthy.

But if it’s not for them, no worries. There are plenty of hobbies they can take up that don’t involve throwing a ball around or using a bat.

Hobbies are a huge part of a fulfilled lifestyle and something any adult should partake in. Maybe they love fishing, maybe the love playing board games, or maybe they just love spending time at the beach. Think about what they are passionate about and encourage them to do more of it.

Learning Services

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Many of us like to spend time in our local communities. Whether we’re shopping, playing sport or just going for a walk, participating in the community shapes the way we live our life.

The more someone interacts and engages with the local community in ways that will develop their skills and confidence, like taking the plunge and striking up a conversation with someone, or doing something you wouldn’t usually do, the easier it becomes.

Here are a few skills you can help your loved one focus on to become more involved in the local community:

Public transport

Some people are not enthused about public transport, but it’s a great opportunity to interact with people and boost someone’s skill set.

Instead of taking a car/taxi ride, encourage them to jump on a train or a bus. They may need some support or feel uncomfortable initially, so go along with them to share the experience.

Once they are familiar with the transport system it will free them up to do more of the things they love, without the required help of anyone else.

Road safety

With increased independence comes a greater need for awareness. If someone doesn’t have a driver’s license or is unfamiliar navigating the streets alone, there could be a big knowledge gap.

For adults with intellectual disabilities, they are often relying on their carers to help them better understand these situations. The goal is to help them reach a competency level at which they can interact in everyday situations more independently..

Consider encouraging your loved one to do a road safety course, and then go along with them.. Practice the lessons you learn next time go out together.

These road safety skills are not only important for your loved one’s confidence, but also for peace of mind if you go out alone or with friends.

Eating at restaurants

Eating out at restaurants can be a lot of fun, but for some adults with disabilities it can be a daunting experience.

The thought of needing to communicate with the wait staff, explain their order and then pay the bill requires a number of crucial life skills. Combine these things together and this can pose an anxiety provoking scenario.

Repetition is the key to building any skill. The more you go out for dinner with your loved one, the more comfortable they will be with the situation.

At Endeavour, our services offer support to individuals in whatever social and community participation they are interested, whether it’s:

  • Joining a social group or other community activity
  • Learning how to use public transport or to drive
  • Playing an instrument or sing in a choir
  • Going to the footy or the movies…
  • Anything else you can think of! 


Relationships come in all shapes and forms - from friends, family, support workers, carers and intimate partners – the skills required to develop meaningful relationships are diverse and challenging.

But without developing the skills to nurture and sustain these relationships, life can be lonely. So taking the time to invest in the life skills required to build meaningful relationships is a worthwhile pursuit.

There are three key areas of development you may like to look at:

Social interactions

Relationships all begin with social interactions. The first impression we make can often be a lasting one, and it’s a sad reality that many people, whether we like it or not, have pre-formed biases towards many minority groups in society

Longer term, education is key to change attitudes.

However, to effectively engage in social interactions with confidence, there are some basic skills you can help your loved one develop.

For example:

  • Meeting someone for the first time is often just as intimidating for them as it is for you. So encourage your loved one to start strong by introducing themselves with a firm handshake or welcome
  • Couple that handshake with the appropriate amount of eye contact, and it will quickly gain the respect of the person they are meeting.
  • Help your loved one understand the concept of personal space and what’s acceptable, or not acceptable in a social situation.
  • Teach and practice common courtesy such as opening the door for someone else, giving up your seat on the bus, or waiting in line for a movie ticket behind others.


Once the first impression is out of the way in a social situation, the relationship moves onto communication – both verbally and physically.

Concepts of communication can be anything from understanding the power of showing interest in others and asking questions, or actively listening to what someone has to say. It can also be about acknowledging what someone else says or responding to a question.

Perhaps the hardest communication skill to develop is in appreciating how much body language contributes to the meaning of a conversation.

Learning the skills associated with effective communication can be a lifetime journey for any adult, so be patient and celebrate small wins with your loved one if they seem to be making progress.

Making friends

As your loved one becomes more attuned to social interactions and communicating with others, they are likely to develop friendships. But in order to do so, they may need to acquire the core values of being a friend.

The skill of making friends comes down to respecting others feelings, finding common interests and maintaining contact when they are not around. You can break all of these things down into little objectives or daily habits for your loved one.

For example, they may get into the habit of calling a friend every Sunday at 5pm. You will be amazed at how quickly this small gesture will turn into a habit, and often a habit that improves their quality of life.

We work with adults to support their journey towards a more independent lifestyle grounded in relationships. Our support services include communication skill development and behavioural support to help each individual form important relationships with friends, family and other people. 

Employment & Financials

Work is a part of adult life. It empowers us to contribute to society and make money to do more of the things we love – whether they be hobbies, sports or community activities.

At Endeavour we are the largest employer of adults with a disability in Australia. We find employment opportunities for adults that focus on their strengths and capabilities, and will help each individual develop as a person to fulfil their potential

If you are considering the idea of employment for your loved one in the community, there are a number of life skills that will help them be successful in doing so. Such as:

  • Preparing a resume
  • Conducting an interview
  • Handling money
  • Budgeting
  • Workplace interaction
  • Health and safety practices
  • Teamwork
  • Customer service

Our Community Learning Hub is an ongoing series of 10 week modules for school leavers and young adults who wish to explore vocational options within their local community. It helps adults with disabilities acquire a set of non-technical skills, knowledge and understanding that help them better participate and contribute to the workplace.

Supported Employment

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Developing life skills in adults with disabilities isn’t all about a more independent lifestyle, even though it can greatly contribute. It’s also about having more fun and enjoying the day-to-day social opportunities that come along.

Staying healthy, taking up new hobbies, getting involved in the community, building relationships and starting to work – all of these things contribute to a meaningful lifestyle for any adult.

In no way are we suggesting your loved one should acquire every one of these skills, it will depend on their preferences and willingness to learn. But if you can encourage and support them on a journey of personal development and growth, it will become rewarding for everyone involved.

Contact us to find out how we can support you


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