One Town's Inspiring Approach to Integrating People with Developmental Disabilities into Their Communities

When was the last time you had a conversation with someone who has a developmental disability? For many Americans, the answer is: never. Programs across the country hope to change that. After all, 15% percent of U.S. children—that's one in seven—have some type of developmental disability, and 22% of U.S. adults live with some kind of disability

Janice Saddler Rice, the communications director of the Montgomery County Board of Developmental Disabilities Services in Ohio, explains, “One of our goals as an organization is to expand the public’s understanding of developmental disabilities, and then help ensure the people with developmental disabilities are integrated in the community as fully as possible, so they can live rewarding lives and feel like they’re a part of society.”

Nationwide, people with developmental disabilities face a plethora of barriers, especially when it comes to accessing support services and community employment. “In the state of Ohio alone, almost 50,000 individuals are on waiting lists for services that currently exist,” says Judy Leasure, development director for Partners For Community Living, a collaborative partnership between two non-profit service providers that provide homes and other aid to those with developmental disabilities.

Saddler’s group has taken an innovative and collaborative approach to tackling some of these fundamental issues. When the new Dayton public library opened downtown, Rice saw it as the perfect place “to create an exhibit about people with developmental disabilities… [to] celebrate their lives and stories.” Dayton Metro Library loved the idea, so the two groups collaborated and installed an exhibit called “Empowering People.” The goal was to demonstrate how people with developmental disabilities contribute to the community, showcasing works by vocational artists with developmental disability. The exhibit depicted the advantages of hiring those with a developmental disability and the contributions they make to the workforce, and presented information about how the use of language affects people and how they are perceived. The exhibit showcased a special presentation in collaboration with local NPR affiliate WYSO called Just Ask, that gave locals with a developmental disability the opportunity to talk about any issue they wanted to share with the general public. 

The exhibit also had a component that allowed visitors to “Paint like Brenda”—a client who “paints the most amazing pictures using a paint brush in a headband,” Rice explains. “She applies the paint by bending her head.” A workstation was set up, and "people got to experience what it’s like to create art if you had a disability where you couldn’t use your limbs.” 

The library selected books and materials about or by people with disabilities. The local transit authority, the RTA, also attended and shared info on mobility issues in the community. Rice says transportation is one of the biggest challenges for people with developmental disabilities. They also shared info on their access center and its services. “This whole [exhibit] was all around empowering people.”

If employers understand that people with developmental disabilities have great potential as workers, that helps everyone.

“What is so great now, is that this has led to additional opportunities,” says Rice, including the opportunity for clients of her program to speak at the library to kids and young adults, helping them understand disability better, and giving the young people the opportunity to ask questions. “It is an important undertaking. Introducing children to the idea of disability early helps build acceptance. And helping adults better understand can result in greater inclusion in society.”

“Communities must become engaged with individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities, families and service providers to take the next steps in the continuing civil rights movement for people with disabilities,” Judy Leasure says. “Businesses and service providers must continue to build partnerships that not only provide meaningful employment opportunities but that benefit businesses with loyal and dedicated employees. Communities must continue to work to include the needs and interests of people with disabilities in such things as community development, transportation plans, infrastructure and other development that has as a central tenet a commitment to accessibility for all.”

Perhaps the biggest barrier, Leasure notes, is “insufficient funding to provide the current level of services that assure both quality and safety for individuals.” Low pay for direct support professionals, as in many other industries, is a problem.

The library, Rice says, “is helping people understand disability. It’s really a neat thing. The goal is to promote greater understanding of disability, so they are recognized for their potential, and that people understand it’s just one facet of people’s life.”

With the help of partners like the library, Ohio might just be at the forefront of integrating developmentally disabled people into the community.

“It’s a great example of the way organizations can partner to better the community,” says Rice.  

Leasure also recommends those interested in the issue become lobbyists: “They must be persistent and tenacious in addressing elected officials to assure funding for the critically needed services that support community access and integration now and into the future.”

That advice is applicable regardless of who, or what you care about for your community, in addition to supporting your neighbors with developmental disabilities.

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