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  • Written by Ethan Dahlquist

March: Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month

Many people do not know what developmental disabilities are. A Developmental disability is recognized through a diverse group of chronic conditions that are due to mental or physical impairments. Developmental disabilities cause individuals living with them many difficulties in certain areas of life, especially in language, mobility, learning, self-help, and independent living.

Examples of developmental disabilities include:

  • Autism.

  • Behavior disorders.

  • Brain injuries.

  • Cerebral palsy.

  • Down syndrome.

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome.

  • Intellectual disability.

  • Spina Bifida.

Much has changed in the world of people with disabilities, since the days when most everyone with a physical or mental disability was put into an institution. Prior to the deinstitutionalization movement of the seventies and eighties, people with disabilities were grossly mistreated; They suffered from poor living conditions, lack of hygiene, overcrowding, ill treatment, and abuse.

Over twenty years ago in 1987, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed March “Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month” and the presidential proclamation called upon Americans to provide the encouragement and opportunities necessary for people with developmental disabilities to reach their potential.

As those citizens began living within the general community in larger numbers, programs to provide career planning, job coaching and supported employment began to emerge. The idea that individuals with developmental disabilities could become productive members of the workforce was new to many people, and entrenched preconceptions had to be overcome. Advocates recognized a moral imperative to engage individuals with all types of disabilities. With passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, workplace discrimination against people with disabilities became sanctionable.

The expectations of young people with developmental disabilities and their parents began to shift. Productive, self-directed lives within the community increasingly became the goal, and an obtainable goal at that. At the same time, due to improvements in healthcare, people with developmental disabilities were living longer, leading to questions about the lifestyle of “retirement-age” individuals.

In short, the national conversation began to address the full spectrum of services needed for people with disabilities to live secure, fulfilling lives. Passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004, further cemented the resolve of self-advocates and their supporters. With its guarantees of early intervention, special education and services to transition high schoolers into adulthood, IDEA opened a world of possibilities.

Unfortunately, despite all of these changes, stereotyping is an issue people with disabilities must continually overcome. These stereotypes are certainly contributing to the continued high unemployment rate among people with disabilities. Derogatory terms are used everyday and continue to hurt people. Not only that but incidents of abuse and neglect are still being experienced. Taxpayer-funded programs for people with disabilities, always under pressure, are more at risk in today’s economic environment. Discussions at all levels of government threaten the advances made during the past 25 years. School districts across the country are faced with shrinking budgets, and sometimes they complain about special education mandates. Medicaid, which has funded many employment and community-based residential programs, is under fire.

Nearly twenty five years after the establishment of Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, the world has changed in important ways. Much, though, remains to challenge us. In the coming years, we’ll need to fight not only for more advances but to retain the accomplishments of past decades. It is a fight in which we must all engage.

Achieving inclusion depends on excellent service delivery, the commitment of the individual to build relationships, and how the community responds. As people with developmental disabilities become contributors in their communities, a subtle shift takes place. The importance of giving back cannot be overstated. Dignity is achieved through work and offers a greater level of acceptance and ultimately leads to a new norm. When a community is willing to look beyond the disability, to see and understand the important and meaningful contributions that people with disabilities can make, the community becomes the beneficiary.

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