Sometimes the path to where we want to be is clearly laid out – all we have to do is follow the signs and stay on the path. Other times the path is only imagined–our destination, a place of belonging and meaning, is only what we wish for or desire–but how we get there still needs to be realized.

Pathways are the routes we can or do, take from one place to another. At these places, or through the things we do and/or the people we engage with at those places, we may (or may not) feel belonging to different degrees (e.g., none, partially, fully). Belonging is a process (e.g., a feeling and experience) that youths with IDD have told us is important for them to live well and meaningfully in the community. Not all pathways are the same. While research has shown us certain experiences are more likely to build belonging (e.g., through the four ways described in the Belonging Framework), the pathways may look very different for each person. Sometimes the pathways itself–that is the journey from one place to another (and through life)–can also foster a sense of belonging or not. If we think about some of the things, people, or places that are meaningful or important in our lives (which are individual to each of us), we can start to imagine the pathways that may move us closer to belonging.

For example, when Joey finishes his high school education, he will attend a transition program at a local community college, where several of his high school friends will be going. For Joey, his pathway across the transition from high school to college is well-defined, straight, and smooth like a paved sidewalk. He knows where he is going and who he is going with, and since many young adults his age follow the same path, the sidewalk is well-marked with signs along the way. But, this is only one example of the many belonging pathways that Joey follows each day.

Setting our own trail or pathway sometimes takes more work. Oftentimes, we may need to work together with others to decide on the best route. But setting our own path can sometimes bring us to new places of belonging that we were not able to find through paths or routes travelled more often or by many others.

Photo by Vicky Tran on

For example, Annette’s doctor has told her that she needs to lose weight and that she should be more active. Annette has never enjoyed participating in physical activity. Her previous experiences of exercise and sport in high school did not build a sense of belonging for her. The gym was intended to be “inclusive” in her school, but she could tell that she was not as good at sports like the other girls and that her body looked different. She usually ended up sitting on the bench with the other students from her special education class. Her weight was never a problem for her though, as she usually kept a busy schedule.

Since graduating from high school, Annette has been spending more and more time in front of the television when she is not attending her day program three days per week. Annette wants to lose weight but does not want to start exercising at the gym, even though other people in her life keep bothering her about it. The pathway her parents and doctor want Annette to take – to start going to the gym – is not a path Annette wants to follow, even though, from the others’ perspectives, going to the gym is a clear and easy path. Annette does not want to let her parents down, but she also feels annoyed that they are forcing her down a path she does not want to take. Right now, she feels stuck – and the path in front of her is like a trail through the woods. That is, it is hard to tell what direction she should take.