Saturday, March 21, 2015

Equal Rights for Persons with Developmental Disabilities No Walk in the Park

Only a short walk from my home is Brook Run Park , a beautiful green space that is a highlight of the city of Dunwoody. Kids play in the park. Teens defy gravity in the skate park. Families gather eagerly for Food Truck Thursdays where they break bread with their neighbors. It is a place my family enjoys. 

But, when I take a walk with my son, the irony does not escape me that we are treading the same grounds where people who share his same genetic disorder where once institutionalized (the park is the site of the former Georgia Retardation Center). 

On March 21, we mark World Down Syndrome Day. March is also Disability Awareness Month. In the past 60 years, we have made great strides to achieve equal rights for individuals with developmental disabilities. Because of early intervention programs, medical innovation, the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, my son will travel a much different journey than he would if he had been born 25 - 30 years ago. But the journey will not be without its struggles. We still have far to go. 

We haven't traveled very far from the mindset that sent thousands of individuals to institutions to live out their lives.

When it comes to persons with disabilities, we still see separation rather than inclusion, we still hear language that is hurtful and demeans and we still label individuals with disabilities as “less than” or “other."

We need to educate people with developmental disabilities based on their individual abilities, and not on stereotypical perceptions of a diagnosis or assumptions on what they “can’t" do.

We need medical schools to incorporate curriculum on disabilities, providing doctors and nurses with updated information so they can properly inform patients on all aspects of a disability diagnosis and allow expectant parents to make informed choices.

And we need our legislators to increase funding for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities budget to provide more supports so these individuals can lead more independent and meaningful lives in their communities. For example, we should be funding employment support programs that help them find meaningful work. Georgia sadly ranks last in the 50 states in this area.

The good news is that this is a movement in which we can all make a difference. We can support businesses who hire persons with disabilities. We can join together across the state and country to advocate for change in our communities, schools, medical institutions, and government. We can give to organizations that are leading the way in these endeavors. And most importantly, we can notice the families in our own neighborhoods who need our understanding, support and friendship. 

Our walk with Joey will, in many ways, be uncharted. We will have to work diligently to get the supports he will need to live an independent life. A life that includes the things everyone wants for their own children— a job, relationships, a home and hobbies. But as we walk in the shadow of Brook Run, we are reminded it is a journey worth undertaking. Will you join us? 

View of the Georgia Retardation Center the original site of Brook Run

Today it is a community green space called Brook Run Park

Master plan for the park which includes playgrounds, skate park, dog park, walking trails and community garden.

Joey having fun at the Brook Run playground