In Pennsylvania alone almost 55,000 individuals with Intellectual Disabilities received services and support last year. At least 14,000 Pennsylvanians are still waiting for services.
The PA House of Representatives recently issued a proclamation naming March as Intellectual Disabilities Awareness Month to coincide with Ronald Reagan’s 1987 proclamation designating March as National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month.
The PA proclamation outlines the “importance of services and supports for people with Intellectual Disabilities and the need to increase public awareness and education to improve the community’s understanding of Intellectual Disabilities.” These services and supports ensure that Pennsylvanians who have Intellectual Disabilities have the “opportunity to participate in the range of life experiences we all enjoy in our homes and communities, such as inclusion in school, neighborhoods, business and places of worship.”
As I read over the proclamation and reflected on my 35 years working in the field of human services it brought to mind a young girl who lived in the same town where I grew up. I can remember a fun and busy childhood where I went to school and church, played on sports teams and after school with friends. I made choices: play softball or be in the school play, who to spend time with or date, and where to go to college.
The other girl in this story was someone I knew of, but didn’t really know. She spent most of her time at home and I would see her outside sometimes after church. She didn’t play with friends in the neighborhood and she didn’t go to school where I went to school. Forty years ago her family had the choice to send her to an institution to live for the rest of her life or keep her with her family at home, but live a segregated existence in her own community.
Through the years many things have changed. Most institutions have closed and there are special education services and community supports available for people to remain living with their family or independently.
There has been a cultural shift toward acceptance and the understanding of differences we all share. Today people with Intellectual Disabilities or Developmental Disabilities are modeling on the runway or stars of TV programs.
The girl I didn’t know is now a woman who still lives in the same community, but now her choices and life experiences are completely different. She lives with other people in a community home, she socializes and goes to a job. She makes choices and has a much richer life by being a full member of the community.
Forty years ago, YAP was founded to prevent institutionalization of individuals like the girl I knew. Today, YAP’s philosophy of changing one biography at a time crosses all individuals that are marginalized.
The PA proclamation states that “Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities deserve and require lifelong support and services in the form of community based services as an alternative to institutional care.” If government, community-based providers and families work together, we can continue to change the lives of thousands more people like the girl I knew.
For more information on the grim history of institutions and the lives that were forever changed view the documentary, “Unforgotten: Twenty-five Years After Willowbrook,” currently available at no cost at www.hulu.com.