I was looking through the news this week for ideas. There were numerous articles about disabilities and developmental disabilities. They touched on a broad range of issues, many of which we may discuss in more detail in the weeks and months to come.
For this week though I want to make note specifically about the extent and variety of the coverage.
It is, in a word, remarkable.
Thirty years ago, when I first started working with people with developmental disabilities, the amount of news coverage of their issues and contributions was very limited and narrowly focused. Occasionally you would see a story about someone with a developmental disability that had surprised the journalist, and they hoped their reading public as well, by the “courageousness” with which they “overcame” adversity. Another time it might be a community’s outcry over real and imagined bad behaviors of people with disabilities living on their block. There were the periodic articles about big ticket budget items such as institutions and Medicaid. Finally you had the glowing accounts of saints without disabilities fulfilling roles as saviors, buddies and mentors.
The majority of that coverage had legitimate news value. It shed light on individuals and their situations, as well as reflecting how the surrounding society felt about and treated people with developmental disabilities. There was also a value in how the coverage affected public policy. However, it treated people with developmental disabilities as an exotic subgroup. They were “other than” not part of the surrounding community
This kind of coverage continues today, of course. But the remarkable change is how much more multifaceted the public exposure of people with developmental disabilities has become.
A browse of the news has smorgasbord of articles about people with developmental disabilities. A sample includes: pwdd and online gaming; how a turkey farm mistreated workers with disabilities; a report in the journal Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities about how the pitch of baby’s cries can indicate health problems and even the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS); people with disabilities and the recent hurricane; a national study that shows more people with disabilities are voting in each election; how there are fewer services for people with Down Syndrome who have Alzheimer’s; company found guilty of substandard wages for employees with intellectual disabilities; could the next Miss America have autism?
It goes on and on. I’m not including links here because the specific articles are not part of my point for this blog entry. In fact, more to the point is that a search of News and Developmental Disability (or Disabilities) is likely to bring you to a new batch of diverse articles that are still part of that all-consuming 24 hour (or 12 or even 8) cycle we find ourselves in these days. And, if you see something of interest in the list I found, a quick browse using some of the key words above will get you to those specific articles.
In addition to the straight news, people with developmental disabilities are in the movies, on television, written about, published, showcased, elected, included, excluded, ignored and taken for granted, and lampooned, to name but a few of the perks and quirks of taking ones place in society.
I think these last few are some of the most impressive. For although no one likes to be the target of the comedic punch line, initially anyway, it is one of the most telling signs that “You Have Arrived” as a full member of the group.
I’m not talking about inappropriate slurs, like some of the early misguided attempts at “disability humor” by those who didn’t know anything about people with disabilities (we all know who).
But as more people with developmental and other disabilities take to the stage themselves, it’s become okay to include them in satire. Treating people with disabilities with kid gloves, fear, awkwardness and outright hostility is giving way to a more natural, nuanced approach. There is room and acceptance now for poking fun at people with disabilities or for just ignoring them altogether if there’s no reason other than their disability to single them out.
As with many of the so-called “cultural issues” of the day, younger people have been moving on. For them it isn’t that noteworthy if a person with multiple developmental disabilities is sharing their classroom; is on their favorite TV program; is just a regular schmoe you aren’t sure if you like or not; is a schumck you really don’t like; is one of your best friends; dates your sister, or your brother; paints with their feet; couldn’t draw a recognizable stick figure if their life depended on it; is funny; is dull; whatever (in the jargon of the times). What matters is who they are and whether what they’re into is what you’re into. Just like with anybody else.
It’s taken awhile. And there’s still a long way to go. But as I looked around at the news earlier this week it was clear to me that those who kept saying that continued exposure over time would promote meaningful inclusion were right. Those efforts in the face of resistance and barriers—from all quarters, including people supposedly looking out for the best interest of individuals with disabilities—are paying off.
Have we arrived? No. There is still discrimination. Segregation. Ignorance, neglect, bullying, and abuse. Still a need for better supports and services.
But things have come a long way since 1984 when I came to work for the state Department of Human Services. And I see some of that progress being reflected now in a healthier diversity and tone permeating the media and popular culture exposure of people with developmental disabilities.