By Lisa Morgan

Seventeen years ago, I was the coordinator of a residential program (Alternative Living Units) for Jewish Family Services in Baltimore, where I wrote an article for the Baltimore Jewish Times about attitude and awareness. And while it is dated, in reading through it, I don’t think there is anything I would change. A group of us at LFSVA is working on a Disabilities Awareness Training that will be offered to any and all community partners including businesses, churches, and schools. There continues to be a great need to open doors and create opportunities for people with disabilities to fully engage in the community. We believe that we will be doing just that with the disabilities awareness training.

Most of us are already aware that there are people living in our community who have developmental disabilities. But comments we hear about people with disabilities reveal some concerns. Many people experience fear, nervousness or anxiety when they encounter someone with a developmental disability simply because they do not know enough about it.

Before I started working in this field, I too had concerns. One day, many years ago, I stepped onto a public bus and sat down beside a man who was rocking back and forth, humming loudly and looking at me. I felt scared, wondering if I should look back at this man. What if I make eye contact and he speaks to me? What if he becomes agitated and yells at me? I became completely fascinated by my own reaction. I could not believe I was feeling all these things.

That experience pushed me to explore my own ideas and attitude, as well as my level of awareness. What I learned was that even though there have been leaps and bounds of progress in services and resources available to people with disabilities and their families, nevertheless, this particular segment of our population continues to be subjected to discrimination.

What exactly is a developmental disability? According to public law, it is a severe and long-lasting disability of a person resulting from a mental or physical impairment or both; occurs before the age of 22; is likely to continue indefinitely; reflects the person’s needs for specialized services and/or treatment; and results in substantial functional limitations in three or more of the following areas: self-care, self-direction, economic self-sufficiency, independent living, learning, receptive and expressive language, and mobility.

The truth is that all individuals, regardless of the degree of disability, can learn new skills. For example, people with mental retardation or Down syndrome can learn tasks of daily living such as bathing, grooming, cooking, cleaning, working in a job, and appropriate social skills. Each person is an individual with his or her own character, personality, sense of humor, values and learning style.

Instead of “the disabled,” let’s use “people first” language. “People with disabilities” are children, teenagers, adults. They are sisters and brothers, parents and spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends, and neighbors. Most important, they are members of our community.

Today, many options are available to both populations. For adults who require some level of assistance around the clock, there are residential programs, such as Alternative Living Units. Other programs help individuals living in their own home by providing support services, including service coordination, counseling, and assistance with basic skills such as cooking, cleaning and safety. Families of people with disabilities can receive help with caregiving, respite, advocacy, and planning for the future. Our community offers many educational, recreational, and counseling programs for children with disabilities and their family members.

The goal of such programs is to enable people with disabilities to live with dignity and enhanced independence, to grow, develop, learn, make choices, work, and participate in the life of their community to the fullest extent possible.
Please take a moment to reflect on your own level of awareness about developmental disabilities. And maybe you can even find an opportunity to reach out to someone with a disability and let that person know he or she is a valued member of our community. Everyone belongs. Every one.

What questions do you have about people with developmental disabilities? Ask us in the comments.