‘Belonging’ is the Ultimate Destination for People with IDD

Posted on March 29, 2021

With the pandemic still looming, we are restricted in how we can commemorate this year’s Intellectual & Developmental Disability (IDD) Awareness Month.

But there’s nothing stopping us from continuing to promote the progress that has been made in our field, especially as we mark Penn-Mar’s 40th Anniversary creating transformative opportunities for people with IDD.

It’s interesting to note that when Penn-Mar first opened its doors in 1981, the people coming into our program were literally “kids” in their early 20s. Today those “kids” are getting close to retirement age! They are a living legacy of people who have personally experienced the significant, and often dramatic, changes in support services.

Back in 1981 the human services field was in the beginning of the deinstitutionalization stage where people with IDD were moved from segregated institutions into larger group settings. The evolution has continued: from segregation, to mainstreaming, to integration in the workforce and finally full-inclusion in the community.

“Integration” is the buzzword in our field. It gives people with IDD the right to show up, but it begs the question, what happens when they get there? Are they truly included in what’s going on? Do they have decision-making authority?

There is a difference between just going to a club or church, for example, and the feeling that you are where you are supposed to be, with all the rights and privileges that come along with it.

To me, the ultimate destination of this evolution should be “belonging,” where you’re not just taking up space in a place but rather feeling valued and part of what’s going on there.

My hope going forward is that at some point in time we won’t even be talking about “disability” because it won’t be that big of an issue. The more we see people with disabilities in our community, the more we want to give people credit for being open about it. But even then, we’re still recognizing people with IDD for their differences rather than seeing them as part of a larger tapestry of how the world is supposed to work.

The pandemic caused a major hiccup for the entire world but the opportunities that are continuing to develop as a result of its impact cannot be overstated. There has never been a better time for people with disabilities to fully and legitimately participate in what the world has to offer.

When I look back at some of our methods 40 years ago in the human services field, it bears little resemblance to the innovative practices of today. But at the time, we were doing the best we could with what we knew. We couldn’t have moved to where we are today without living through those past experiences and applying them to the future in a way that is better for everyone.

During IDD Awareness Month, I applaud all of the professionals who have been with us these last 40 years who were, and are, willing to change and grow to achieve that end. What has helped me to continually raise the bar in my 33 years at Penn-Mar is the knowledge that the one thing that never changes is the value of human life. That is a grounding principle for me in how we develop more and more opportunities for the people we support.

The reason Penn-Mar has been able to grow so consistently is that our goal has never wavered: give people with IDD the chance to live their best life, filled with as much independence, opportunity, and fulfillment as everyone else. That focus has helped us arrive to where we are and propels us into each new day.