Acceptance is created from an empowered movement that educates others to embrace diversity and love life by seeing beyond abilities.
If you count the two years I spent volunteering at the Special Religious Education Program at Blessed Sacrament parish in Springfield, I have been working with and advocating for adults with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities for over 50 years. It has been an incredible journey and it’s been heartening to experience the positive changes in how individuals with special needs are talked about, are spoken to, and are supported in community settings.
I started my paid employment in the field as a direct support staff at a state operated developmental center in Champaign, IL. Though a number of my fellow co-workers truly cared about the individuals we served, it was still very difficult to provide the individuals with the quality of life they deserved in such an isolated and restrictive environment. I painfully remember a number of episodes where I had to sit with individuals as they calmed themselves after being alarmingly distraught because they weren’t allowed to take part in normal activities in the community.
Over time, certain high profile cases and the civil rights movement led to new laws and Acts. In early 1972, Geraldo Rivera, an investigative reporter for WABC-TV in New York, was called by an activist physician recently fired for speaking out about the abysmal conditions at Willowbrook. Rivera’s exposé, Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace, garnered national attention, and was an indictment of institutionalization and treatment of persons with developmental disabilities.
The establishment of the Protection and Advocacy (P&A) title in the 1975 amendments to the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act (DD Act) was a civil rights achievement of several leaders including the late Elizabeth Boggs, Ph.D.
David Ferleger, a long-standing champion of the rights of people with developmental disabilities, filed the landmark Halderman v. Pennhurst State School and Hospital case in 1974. The Pennhurst decision was the first federal court decision to hold that there is a right to community services for people with disabilities.
Litigation in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s questioned both the purpose of institutions and the confinement of people in institutions, and progressively led to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) language that the United States Supreme Court was later to use in the Olmstead decision – declaring that to needlessly confine a person in an institution is segregation, that segregation is discrimination, and the ADA forbids such discrimination.
It’s incredible to see how our own agency has changed since its’ beginnings in 1956. Our spirited individuals are living and working in their communities and in many ways adding to the social fabric of their neighborhoods! We have persons with paid jobs; individuals are volunteering at a number of community sites including our own Second Chance Thrift Shop; when persons aren’t participating in a well rounded curriculum at our day program, they are constantly going out and about enjoying all that our wonderful communities offer.
And I am very excited to see how the next chapter unfolds! People will often ask me if I’m thinking about retiring and my response is, “Are you nuts? I’ve got the best job in the world!”