Character Strengths and Disability
Summary of Research Findings
The disability field is often linked but not limited to the previous entry on character strengths in education, schools, and children. The disability field has become more “strengths-based” over the previous decade, however, the vast majority of strengths-based programs, schools, and organizations are addressing strengths as external resources, interests/passions, talents/abilities, and/or skills, rather than all important features of identity/personality, namely character strengths (Niemiec, Shogren, & Wehmeyer, 2017). The following studies focus more on character strengths in disabilities or papers that point in that direction.
- This chapter emphasizes the importance of character strengths-based approaches for children and adolescents with disabilities and highlights the role of parents and practitioners (Williams & Kumar, 2018).
Williams, J., P., & Kumar, A. (2018). From deficit to a strength model: Character strength interventions for children with disabilities. In A. Kumar, T. S. George, & N. T. Sudhesh (Eds.), Character strength development: Perspectives from positive psychology (pp. 353–367). Sage Publications India. https://doi.org/10.4135/9789353287641.n19
- Qualitative study of adolescents/adults with autism or intellectual/developmental disability using parent-reported strengths. The most reported positive qualities were personality-related (82%) and sociability (53%) with most parents reporting one or more qualities (97%). A new focus for the disability area was identified - work ethic/motivation (Wilkinson et al., 2022).
Wilkinson, E., Vo, L. T. V., London, Z., Wilson, S., & Bal, V. H. (2022). Parent-reported strengths and positive qualities of adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorder and/or intellectual disability. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-021-05405-x
- A study of 11,699 people with different kinds of disabilities were looked at in terms of character strengths. The top character strengths were love of learning, honesty, appreciation of beauty, kindness, and fairness, and there was some variation of these based on the type of disability (Umucu et al., 2022).
Umucu, E., Lee, B., Genova, H. M., Chopik, W. J., Sung, C., Yasuoka, M., & Niemiec, R. M. (2022). Character strengths across disabilities: An international exploratory study and implications for positive psychiatry and psychology. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 13, 863977. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2022.863977
- A study of individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities (IDD) and clinicians who work with people with IDD using the VIA Survey, found that the use of the VIA Survey fostered self-understanding and self-esteem, provided a framework/language of strengths, shaped strengths-based interventions, and enhanced communication across service systems (Schwartz et al., 2022).
Schwartz, A. E., Caoili, A., Beasley, J. B., Kramer, J. M., & Kalb, L. G. (2022). Clinical applications of the VIA inventory of strengths with individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities. Journal of Positive Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2022.2036797
- The VIA Classification was used as a framework for coding 153 parents’ descriptions of the best things about their children. Across ages (ranging from 3-11), the most common, parent-endorsed strengths were love, kindness, and humor, and the strength of perseverance in children as they entered school. Higher scores on the Child Behavior Checklist was connected with lower likelihood of endorsing humanity traits (Cost et al., 2021).
Cost, K. T., Zaidman Zait, A., Mirenda, P., Duku, E., Zwaigenbaum, L., Smith, I. M., Ungar, W. J., Kerns, C., Bennett, T., Szatmari, P., Georgiades, S., Waddell, C., Elsabbagh, M., & Vaillancourt, T. (2021). “Best Things”: Parents Describe Their Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder Over Time. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-021-04890-4
- A systematic review of the positive psychology and intellectual disability literature was conducted and 13 positive psychology constructs (and 22 measures) were identified. Most common constructs were character strengths, positive emotional well-being, and growth (Albaum et al., 2021).
Albaum, C., Chan, V., Sellitto, T., Vashi, N., Hastings, R. P., & Weiss, J. A. (2021). Redressing the balance: A systematic review of positive psychology in the intellectual disability literature. International Review of Research in MR. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.irrdd.2021.08.003
- This was a controlled study of a strengths safari intervention among neurodivergent children in early childhood education. Results showed significant benefits in teacher-rated executive functioning (Naples & Tuckwiller, 2021).
Naples, L. H., & Tuckwiller, E. D. (2021). Taking students on a strengths safari: A multidimensional pilot study of school-based wellbeing for young neurodiverse children. International Journal of Environmetal Research and Public Health, 18. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18136947
- A randomized trial of a strength-based flourishing intervention on people with physical disabilities in poor regions found that the intervention could significantly promote resilience although the effects were not immediate (Bu & Duan, 2020).
Bu, H., & Duan, W. (2020). Strength-based flourishing intervention to promote resilience in individuals with physical disabilities in disadvantaged communities: A randomized controlled trial. Research on Social Work Practice, 31(1) 53-64. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049731520959445
- Emphasizes the importance of bringing character strengths assessments and interventions into the education context to support students with disabilities and highlights that these involve a low-cost approach for the education context (Raley, Shogren, & Cole, 2020).
Raley, S. K., Shogren, K. A., & Cole, B. P. (2020). Positive psychology and education of students with disabilities: The way forward for assessment and intervention. Advances in Neurodevelopmental Disorders. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s41252-020-00181-8
- This study examined how siblings perceived the character strengths of their siblings who have an intellectual/developmental disability or autism. Siblings with a disability were rated moderate to high in character strengths with the majority described as having multiple strengths which are highly individualized (Carter et al., 2020).
Carter, E. W., Carlton, M. E., & Travers, H. E. (2020). Seeing strengths: Young adults and their siblings with autism or intellectual disability. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities. https://doi.org/10.1111/jar.12701
- In a study of developmental services workers, the top character strengths were humor, teamwork, fairness, honesty, kindness, self-regulation, love of learning, and perspective. Interviews found that workers used character strengths to provide compassionate and meaningful care, motivate their own flourishing at work, and to support their clients’ well-being (Darewych et al., 2020).
Darewych, O. H., Braganza, M. E., Newton, N. J., Kozman, K. H., & Argyle, H. (2020). Examining character strengths of developmental services workers in Canada: A mixed-methods pilot study. Journal of Social Service Research. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/01488376.2020.1825586
- Explores the use of camera and video feedback of character strengths-based interventions for people with little to no literacy and with intellectual/developmental disabilities. Intervention modifications, emphasis on emerging character strengths, and strategies involving immediate visual feedback are among the themes discussed (Szucs et al., 2019).
Szucs, A., Schau, C., Muscara, K., & Tomasulo, D. (2019). Character strength activation for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities using video feedback in groups. Journal of Education and Learning, 8(1). DOI:10.5539/jel.v8n1p12
- Feasibility study testing character strengths interventions in an integrated classroom (children with and without disabilities) to reduce discrimination between children and improve class climate (Bressoud, Shankland, Ruch, & Gay, 2018). They emphasized 5 steps from Linkins, Niemiec, Gillham, & Mayerson (2014) involving developing a character strengths language and lens using the VIA Survey; recognizing and thinking about character strengths in others and in oneself; practicing with and applying character strengths; identifying, celebrating and cultivating group character strengths. Positive feedback emerged supporting the project as feasible and therefore wider application to other classrooms and the entire system is moving forward**.**
Bressoud, N., Shankland, R., Ruch, W., & Gay, P. (2018). Character strengths and children with special needs: A way to promote well-being all together. Conference paper: International Conference on Well-Being in Education Systems.
Linkins, M., Niemiec, R. M., Gillham, J., & Mayerson, D. (2014). Through the lens of strength: A framework for educating the heart. Journal of Positive Psychology. DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2014.888581****ce. Psychology, 9, 2083-2102.
- A 16-week intervention among 4th through 6th graders focused on teaching children character strengths awareness and use to promote learning, well-being, and social skills. Benefits included consistency of interest, group cohesion, and classroom spirit. Examples of benefits revealed in teacher interviews included naming strengths in others, support for one another, well-being, and positive interactions (Vuorinen, Erikivi, & Uusitalo-Malmivaara, 2018).
Vuorinen, K., Erikivi, A., & Uusitalo-Malmivaara, L. (2018). A character strength intervention in 11 inclusive Finnish classrooms to promote social participation of students with special education needs. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1471-3802.12423
- Systematic review of the efficacy of positive interventions for neurological populations, and among six effective therapies, character strengths interventions and hope interventions were noted to improve quality of life and reduce symptom distress and depression (Lai et al., 2018).
Lai, S.-T., Lim, K.-S., Low, W.-Y., & Tang, V. (2018). Positive psychological interventions for neurological disorders: A systematic review. The Clinical Neuropsychologist. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13854046.2018.1489562
- In a study of positive psychological interventions for people with epilepsy, there was a strong willingness to participate in the interventions and the three (out of nine) most preferred positive interventions were character strengths, mindfulness, and expressive interventions (Lai et al., 2018).
Lai, S.-T., Lim, K.-S., Tang, V., & Low, W.-Y. (2018). Positive psychological interventions for people with epilepsy: An assessment on factors related to intervention participation. Epilepsy & Behavior, 80, 90-97. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.yebeh.2017.12.019
- Among individuals with a visual impairment, strengths use was significantly associated with happiness and with positive emotions, and is considered a possible protective factor from the negative effects of such impairments (Matsuguma et al., 2018).
Matsuguma S, Kawashima M, Negishi K, Sano F, Mimura M, Tsubota K (2018). Strengths use as a secret of happiness: Another dimension of visually impaired individuals' psychological state. PLoS ONE, 13(2), e0192323. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0192323
- A study offering psychometric support for using the VIA Youth Survey with people with intellectual/developmental disabilities (Shogren et al., 2018).
Shogren, K. A., Shaw, L. A., Raley, S. K., Wehmeyer, M. L., Niemiec, R., & Adkins, M. (2018). Assessing character strengths in youth with intellectual disability: Reliability and factorial validity of the VIA-Youth. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 56(1), 13-29. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1352/1934-9556-56.1.13
- Reviews the research on character strengths and disability observing that when the disability field discusses “strengths” and “strengths-based approaches” it is usually referring to strength categories known as skills, interests, and resources, and not character strengths. This paper offers a framework of tools/concepts for the intellectual/developmental disabilities field to bring the latest character strengths science into assessment, interventions, and systems of support (Niemiec, Shogren, & Wehmeyer, 2017).
Niemiec, R. M., Shogren, K. A., & Wehmeyer, M. L. (2017). Character strengths and intellectual and developmental disability: A strengths-based approach from positive psychology. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 52(1).
- Preliminary work examining the inclusiveness of VIA Youth Survey for youth with disabilities. This study found that the assessment was reliable and meaningful for youth with and without disabilities and similar strengths profiles emerged (Shogren et al., 2017).
Shogren, K. A., Wehmeyer, M. L., Lang, K., & Niemiec, R. M. (2017). The application of the VIA classification of strengths to youth with and without disabilities. Manuscript submitted for publication.
- Examined the top character strengths of treatment program/school staff for students with autism and other developmental disorders and found kindness, honesty, humor, fairness, and love to be highest; follow-up interviews found that the staff use these strengths to motivate students, build other strengths and strong relationships, maximize progress and coping, avoid negative outcomes, and meet individuals’ unique needs (Korn, Woodard, & Tucker, in press).
Korn, M. A., Woodard, C. R., & Tucker, C. A. (2016). Positive character traits of special education staff: Commonalities and applications. International Journal of Special Education.
- Examined individuals with Asperger’s Disorder and neurotypical controls and found that the former were highest in judgment/critical thinking, creativity, and love of learning (cognitive strengths) while the latter were highest in kindness, fairness, humor, love (social/emotional strengths). It was the social and emotional strengths that had the highest positive connections with life satisfaction for the Asperger’s group (Kirchner, Ruch, & Dziobek, 2016).
Kirchner, J., Ruch, W., & Dziobek, I. (2016). Brief report: Character strengths in adults with autism spectrum disorder without intellectual impairment. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46, 3330-3337. DOI 10.1007/s10803-016-2865-7
- Examines the film Finding Dory through the lens of character strengths to understand the capabilities and strengths of individuals living with disabilities (Mills & Sansom, 2016).
Mills, E. M., & Sansom, L. (2016). What can dory do? Character strengths and disability. PsycCRITIQUES, 61(51), Np. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0040599
- In a study that challenges deficit-based views of youth with intellectual/developmental disabilities, higher character strengths ratings were predicted by greater community activity involvement and use of speech as the primary communication mode, while challenging behaviors predicted lower ratings of character strengths (Carter et al., 2015).
Carter, E. W., Boehm, T. L., Biggs, E. E., Annandale, N. H., Taylor, C. E., Loock, A. K., & Liu, R. Y. (2015). Known for my strengths: Positive traits of transition-age youth with intellectual disability and/or autism. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 40(2), 101–119. http://doi.org/10.1177/1540796915592158
- Among many findings in a study of well-being among 389 youth with autism and/or intellectual disability, higher well-being ratings in one or more domains was predicted by youth character strengths, as well as faith, community involvement, and minority status (Biggs & Carter, 2015).
Biggs, E. E., & Carter, E. W. (2015). Quality of life for transition-age youth with autism or intellectual disability. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. DOI 10.1007/s10803-015-2563-x
- Character strengths and other positive psychology areas have been studied in people with dyslexia (Kannangara, 2015; Kannangara, Griffiths, Carson, & Munasinghe, 2015).
Kannangara, C. S. (2015). From languishing dyslexia to thriving dyslexia: Developing a new conceptual approach to working with people with dyslexia. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01976 Kannangara, C. S., Griffiths, D., Carson, J., & Munasinghe, S. (2015). The relevance of cybernetics for a positive psychology approach to dyslexia. Kybernetes, 44(8/9), 1284–1297. http://doi.org/10.1108/K-11-2014-0270
- Theory and treatment of using action methods and creative dramatics, including character strengths application, is shown to be effective among people with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities (Tomasulo & Szucs, 2015).
Tomasulo, D., & Szucs, A. (2015). The ACTing cure: Evidence-based group treatment for people with intellectual disabilities. Dramatherapy, 37(2-3), 100-115. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02630672.2016.1162824
- A small sample of students with learning disabilities and/or ADHD experienced some positive benefits in completing a program that involved identifying and using strengths among other practices in self-determination and positive psychology (Farmer, Allsopp, & Ferron, 2015).
Farmer, J. L., Allsopp, D. H., Ferron, J. M. (2015). Impact of the personal strengths program on self-determination levels of college students with LD and/or ADHD. Learning Disability Quarterly, 38(3), 145-159.
- Discusses the evidenced-based, group therapy approach for people with intellectual/developmental disabilities called Interactive-Behavioral Therapy (IBT). Discusses modifications to include positive psychology elements including character strengths (e.g., case discussion of the “virtual gratitude visit”) (Tomasulo, 2014).
Tomasulo, D. (2014). Positive group psychotherapy modified for adults with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities.
- Part of this paper discusses the value of using targeted interventions for character strengths to improve the lives of people with physical disabilities, such as those being treated in rehabilitation centers (Chan et al., 2013).
Chan, J. Chan, F., Ditchman, N., Phillips, B., & Chou, C. (2013). Evaluating Snyder’s hope theory as a motivational model of participation and life satisfaction for individuals with spinal cord injury: A path analysis. Rehabilitation Research, Policy, and Education, 27(3), 187-205.
- Examined the character strength of humor among people with Asperger's/autism and found that it was the 16th highest strength on average compared with typically developing individuals (matched by age, gender, and education) in which humor ranked 8th. In addition, humor was related only to the life of pleasure among people with Asperger's whereas humor was related to pleasure, engagement, meaning, and life satisfaction among typically developing individuals (Samson & Antonelli, 2013).
Samson, A. C., & Antonelli, Y. (2013). Humor as character strength and its relation to life satisfaction and happiness in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 26 (3), 477-491.
- A pilot character strengths-focused group (4 sessions) for caretakers of children with cerebral palsy found significantly lower parent stress and higher hope at the conclusion of the group and at 1-month follow-up (Fung et al., 2011).
Fung, B. K. K., Ho, S. M. Y., Fung, A. S. M., Leung, E. Y. P., Chow, S. P., Ip, W. Y., Ha, K. W. Y., & Barlaan, P. I. G. (2011). The development of a strength-focused mutual support group for caretakers of children with cerebral palsy. East Asian Archives of Psychiatry, 21 (2), 64-72.
- Offers psychometrics on a measure of positive traits for people with intellectual/developmental disabilities, along with discussion of activities for boosting them (Woodard, 2009). Most of the 10 traits assessed are VIA character strengths, for example, forgiveness, humor, gratitude, courage, self-control, kindness, and optimism.
Woodard, C. (2009). Psychometric properties of the ASPeCT-DD: Measuring positive traits in persons with developmental disabilities. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 27, 433-444.
- Although it uses “dated” and no-longer-accepted terminology (see Wehmeyer et al., 2008), this article suggests that character strengths can play an important role in Down syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, and Williams syndrome (Dykens, 2006).
Dykens, E. M. (2006). Toward a positive psychology of mental retardation. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 76(2), 185-193.
- In a study of adolescents with and without cognitive disabilities, hope, optimism, locus of control, and self-determination were strongly correlated and both hope and optimism predicted life satisfaction in the youth with and without disability (Shogren et al., 2006).
Shogren, K. A., Lopez, S. J., Wehmeyer, M. L., Little, T. D., & Pressgrove, C. L. (2006). The role of positive psychology constructs in predicting life satisfaction in adolescents with and without cognitive disabilities: An exploratory study. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(1), 37-52.
Updated July 2022