Episode 11: Both in the Community and Part of the Community

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Guest Blog by Jo Booms

Throughout Colorado, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) are increasingly being served in their communities instead of by regional center institutions. The move to serve people with IDD in their communities has been very successful, but the challenge isn’t over yet. It’s not enough for people with IDD to just live in their communities; they need to also take part in the life of their communities for them and their communities to receive the most benefit. Remember how you felt when you had to isolate during the early part of the pandemic and your ability to interact with others sharply lessened? This is, unfortunately, how many people with IDD still feel despite living in the community. Though much progress has been made to include people with IDD in community life, we still have a long way to go to reach total inclusion. While agencies strive to get people with IDD included, the community remains unsure of how to connect.

When I was a teen in the 1980’s and volunteered at a Pueblo group home for girls, we took the girls everywhere. They had as much time in the community as the staff could make happen. We took the girls to parks, to the mall, to restaurants. The girls had a blast and so did we. The girls spent a lot of time in their community, but something was still lacking – the community itself didn’t spend a lot of time with the girls. The girls got stared at everywhere we took them, and few people said hi or asked the girls how they were doing. The girls had a lot of fun, but they were treated as a spectacle rather than people to be approached and included. They were in the community, but at the same time they had very few meaningful interactions with that community.

As the 1990s went by and more students were mainstreamed in classrooms, attitudes began to shift. Kids became used to seeing peers with IDD in their schools and classrooms. Staring went down and familiarity went up as people with IDD became part of the normal, everyday background. The familiarity was good, but there still wasn’t a lot of interaction between the community and people with IDD. There wasn’t much staring, but there wasn’t much meaningful interaction, either. It’s really not difficult to say hi to someone with a disability; you do it like you’d say hi to anyone else. More people with IDD being employed in the community instead of in sheltered workshops has helped co-workers value people with disabilities. Yet, much awkwardness on the community’s part remains.

Agencies that serve people with IDD are tasked with making sure that people with IDD have access to their communities, but agencies can’t do it alone. This is where you come in.

There are many ways to forge meaningful interactions with people with IDD. When you see people with IDD, don’t be shy. Say hi. Ask how their day is going. It’s sometimes hard to know what people with IDD will understand, but a good rule of thumb is to talk to them like you’d talk to anyone else, then pay attention to their feedback and go from there. If you have a garden, contact an IDD agency and ask if they have anyone who’d like to come pick vegetables to take home. If you have a business, contact an IDD agency to see if they have anyone you could employ. Businesses have lots of complex tasks they need done, but they have simple tasks, too. Community festivals can extend an invitation to people with IDD to attend. Not sure how to contact a developmental disabilities agency? Just Google your city name plus “developmental disabilities agency.” Like you and me, everyone is a unique individual. Some people with IDD are outgoing. Other are introverts. But if you make the effort, you’ll find connections that click, and maybe even make some new friends.

Life is all about building community, so go forth and build!