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March 22, 2014

You are an important person, the result of a complex mixture of characteristics that combine to form your personality. You have both positive and negative qualities, strengths and weaknesses and personal likes and dislikes. This makes you totally unique and completely different from everyone else. You belong to the human family and yet you are an individual. You defy descriptions and labels because you are more than just a “type of person”. Each of us is convinced of our own worth. We each believe that the world would be changed forever if we were not present, and that is certainly true. We all play our respective roles in life, and without us things could not possibly be the same. These are the perceptions we embrace concerning our own lives.

But how accurate are the perceptions we have regarding people with developmental disabilities? To a significant degree, the quality of life they enjoy is based on how they are treated by others. That is why it is important to consider how perceptions that are not true can affect our attitude towards them.

Do we believe they are different?

Do we believe they are childlike?

Do we believe they can’t be understood?

Do we believe they can’t learn?

Do we believe they can’t be part of the community?

Do we believe they can’t be employed?

Do we believe they can’t be independent?

Do we believe they can’t be our friends?

Do we believe they are not equal?

All of these perceptions are wrong because they are not based on facts. They are just assumptions that focus solely on a single aspect of a person’s humanity. They fail to see the complete person who has so much to offer the world. Therefore we must learn to open our minds to the reality of what makes us human. An IQ score is not the determining factor of our value to society. We must look past the labels that are used to unfairly limit the potential of a person. Of the 7 billion human beings on earth, 3% are defined as having a developmental disability. That means that millions of people around the world have a label that follows them all of their lives. But there is so much more to a person than just a diagnosis that is imposed on them by others.

Unfortunately, our perceptions of intellectual challenges are sometimes completely off base. Just because an individual is nonverbal does not mean she doesn’t have thoughts, ideas and opinions she wants to share. We just have to find ways of assisting her in communicating. When an individual cannot count to 25 it doesn’t mean he can’t hold a job. We just need to make the necessary adjustments that allow him to be employed without the pressures of math. An individual who cannot stand for long periods of time can be accommodated so they can work while standing or sitting. That is a simple adaptation that can allow a person to remain productive. If an individual has difficulty understanding proper hygiene, it is not a reason for him to be ridiculed. We just need to assist him in improving his daily living skills so he can avoid unnecessary illness. Whatever particular issues a person faces we can find workable solutions that will help them thrive and enjoy inclusion in their community.  

Each person with a developmental disability is a completely unique individual. They laugh and they cry, they feel joy and pain, and they have achievements and setbacks. They are optimistic and confident as they make plans and reach their goals. They rise up to face challenges, and they are rightfully proud of their accomplishments. They long to be as independent as possible. They want to be accepted for who they are. They want the opportunity to participate in all areas of society, and they want to be appreciated and considered important.

For the world to ever be a fair and just place, all life must be valued. Every person, no matter what their intellectual challenge might be, has the right to pursue happiness, to enjoy good health and to have a sense of purpose in their life. In order for this to occur we must open our hearts and our minds. We must learn to overcome our preconceived notions about how much a disability should be allowed to define a person, and ultimately we must have compassion for everyone.

We all know that life can be difficult under the best of circumstances. It should not be made even more demanding because of the unfounded misconceptions of others. Men and women who happen to have intellectual challenges are more than just their diagnosis. They are real people living real lives. It is up to us to look past the disability and see the humanity of each person. If we will do this the world will change for the better. Certainly those that have suffered for so long from intolerance and neglect will enjoy a dramatic improvement in their lives, but it will also have a positive effect on the rest of us. Nothing but good can come from embracing each individual as a complete human being worthy of understanding and acceptance.

We cannot allow a person with a developmental disability to have their life diminished because of other people’s perceptions.