By Bob Hebl
It was less than 50 years ago when the plight of tens of thousands of people with disabilities gained national attention.
Several pieces of literature, such as Burton Blatt and Fred Kaplan’s Christmas in Purgatory, along with courageous investigative reporting, brought some grim details to light. Dozens of large state institutions throughout America were housing thousands of people with disabilities. Housing is the key word, as the meager resources and virtually non-existent staffing ratios, left people of all ages and disability levels to fend for themselves. Little or no effort was made to educate, as this was a population that many in society had forgotten about.
Can you imagine being labeled as non-trainable retarded or residing in a home for the insane?
As a result of efforts made by the Kennedy Administration, organizations such as the ARC, and family advocates, people with disabilities — and their loved ones — began to have a voice. Over the past four decades, tens of thousands of people have moved out of large institutions and into smaller, community-based settings, often near family and friends.
In Iowa alone, more than 12,000 people with intellectual disabilities now receive Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) residential support services through the Iowa Medicaid Waiver. Providing individualized support and meaningful community access has improved the lives of many people with disabilities. Most of us probably cannot fully appreciate the impact that being part of a community family has on our lives, because we often take such access for granted. However, many people with disabilities view community access as a privilege that they and their families have fought hard to attain.
I believe that welcoming people with disabilities into our communities has helped all of us. People with disabilities are our neighbors, friends, customers, and co-workers and, if we pay attention, they can teach us a great deal about life. Our communities have become more diverse, accepting and welcoming, in no small part due to the evolution of community based services.
It seems clear that our friends and neighbors with disabilities have truly enriched our lives, once they were given the chance.
Bob Hebl of Cedar Rapids is the executive director at Discovery Living Inc., a non-profit provider of residential supports and services to people with intellectual disabilities in Linn County. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org