Awareness of challenges faced by people with disabilities is only the first step

By Mike Thirtle, Ph.D.

This March we celebrate the 33rd Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan issued a public proclamation that called on all Americans to provide individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities “the encouragement and opportunities they need to lead productive lives and achieve their full potential.”

As a country, we’ve certainly become more aware of the needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the last three decades. That awareness has helped us make progress in providing opportunities and supports needed to lead the lives they want, consistent with President Reagan’s call. However, awareness is just the first step. This month and beyond, I urge every American to truly embrace the intrinsic value of the lives of all of our brothers and sisters. 

For example, greater awareness has led to more creative housing options for people with disabilities, moving from institutions to smaller group homes, plus shared living (integration with a new family) and supported living environments. But we truly value people when we empower their choice to be part of our neighborhoods and communities.

The numbers show why that doesn’t happen as much as it should. More than 6 million Americans have an intellectual or developmental disability. Just less than 1 million of them are living with a family member over the age of 60, according to The ARC. Even if otherwise able to be out on their own, many people with disabilities simply can’t afford a safe, quality home for themselves. In fact, those who rely on Supplemental Security Income have incomes averaging about $9,000 a year. That won’t pay for security deposits, furnishings, moving expenses and other costs of living.

A lack of meaningful jobs makes things worse. The labor force participation rate for working-age people with disabilities ended 2019 at 33.3 percent, less than half the 76.9 percent for people without disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This prices people with disabilities out of the housing market and ensures they do not have real choice on where and with whom to live.

Providing jobs is critical. But we can do more, and truly value people with intellectual and developmental disabilities by also providing supports and services that help them identify their skills and passions, and giving them the tools to craft a career. This gives people the economic power to become consumers and exercise real choice in the marketplace.

And, by exercising real choice, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities can choose the community in which they want to live, work, play and worship. For many people, an important part of leading a full life is being welcomed into a faith community. In fact, 84 percent of people with disabilities say their faith is important to them yet only 45 percent attend a place of worship at least monthly, according to the Collaborative on Faith & Disability. Making it convenient for people with disabilities to visit houses of worship is a good start. We demonstrate how we value people when we encourage and welcome them to be leaders and true members of congregations in all our communities.

I encourage everyone to be inspired by Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. Use the month as a springboard to a lifelong commitment to valuing and including people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as integral parts of our communities. You will be amazed at how much richer all our lives will be.

Mike Thirtle, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Bethesda, a nonprofit organization providing services and supports for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities across the U.S.

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