Feb February 2022

Why the Active social role?

Introducing a new concept into the discussion on social participation is not an easy task. However, there currently appears to be a lack of concepts to fully understand what constitutes truly inclusive social participation that benefits both individuals and the wider community. It is therefore proposed to develop the concept of ‘active social role’.

The Active social role should be understood as one of the components of a truly inclusive social participation. It effectively clarifies elements of the concepts of ‘social participation’ and ‘inclusion’ as understood in the field of disability studies. By making it a sine qua non component of inclusion and social participation, the idea of active social role allows for a qualitative clarification of these two concepts.

 To this end, active social role is a key concept for developing and implementing programmes for adults with intellectual disabilities aged 21 and over. In contrast to the relatively passive activities that are sometimes considered as forms of social participation or inclusion (mostly ‘maintenance’ and purely occupational activities), active social role aims to truly include people in their community and give them a full role in social and economic life. This does not necessarily mean that people are employed, but this form of social participation should lead to engagement within the community.

Criteria used to define the active social role

The criteria for achieving an active social role are of three different orders. They are summarized below:

  1. Agency: agency is the ability to act, the capacity to influence the world. Active social role is therefore by definition an active form of social participation in which people are in motion and in real action and are not passive.
  2. Direct involvement in the community: in the active social role, the person is not only situated in the community, but interacts with the rest of the community. In this dynamic the person is notably a helper rather than just being helped. It is a win-win relationship.
  3. Impacts on the person and on the community: the active social role has positive, real, concrete and profound impacts on the person and the community in which he/she is living.

Intended impacts

The ultimate goal of active social role is to have a positive impact on both the people who take an active social role and the community in which they live. To this end, here are the impacts that active social roles could have.

Impacts on the person in an active social role in the context of services for adults aged 21 and over : 

  • Development and strengthening of autonomy and self-determination: Active social roles aim to enable people to strengthen their ability to make choices and to fulfill themselves according to their preferences and wishes.
  • Strengthening and acquiring social and professional skills: As the active social role is engaged in community service, it aims to enable people to strengthen and acquire new social and professional skills, which could lead to inclusive employment in the long run.
  • Development of self-esteem and sense of community: Active social role aims to strengthen people’s self-esteem and sense of community through social participation and work experiences.

Impacts on the community:

  • Awareness and recognition of diversity in the community: the presence and actions of people playing an active social role in the community ultimately lead to greater inclusion, both for people with disabilities and for other marginalised populations.
  • Helping the community: having people in active social roles in the community helps to meet needs that would otherwise not be addressed. For example: supporting the elderly or supporting the local economy.
  • Long-term economic impact: The strengthening and acquisition of social and professional skills through active social roles should lead to positive economic impacts. When people work and are economically included, they contribute to the collective effort, and are no longer dependent on support programmes such as social assistance or social solidarity.

Active social role is therefore defined as an active, relevant and cooperative participation in the community. The impact of this participation is concrete and generates mutual exchanges that are positive for all members of the community.

Limits of the concept

Introducing a new concept comes with its own set of issues and challenges, and it is certain that some people will find flaws in the criteria and impacts intended. This is normal and welcomed. The concept should evolve and live on as it is used, tested and proven.

Furthermore, the introduction of the concept of active social role does not mean that all skills maintenance or occupational programmes are bad, or that all people can play an active social role at all times. It is important to respect everyone’s needs and desires. Nevertheless, the majority of people currently engaged in social participation activities could do much more and realise their potential. They need to be allowed to do so and empowered to do better.


Active social role should be the cornerstone on which programmes for adults aged 21 and over are built in order to offer activities that are truly inclusive and allow people to acquire new skills, but also a sense of achievement.

Finally, it is clear that the positive impact on the community could, in the long run, be a catalyst for a greater form of social inclusion for all, not just for people with disabilities.


By Samuel Ragot and Stephan Marcoux – February 2022