Every March we celebrate Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month and the many contributions people with developmental disabilities (DD) make to our society. This year, the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities, Association of University Centers on Disabilities, and National Disability Rights Network chose the theme “Side by Side” to highlight the principle that everyone benefits when people with and without disabilities live, learn, and earn “side by side” in the community.
This idea of true inclusion and integration is the backbone of our work at ACL, and we are proud to work with our DD network partners to make it a reality for all people.
However, it is not only people with and without disabilities who are stronger working side by side. This simple, yet powerful idea also applies to all of us working within the disability community. Historically, we have often worked within our individual spheres. DD advocates all knew each other and worked together, the independent living community did the same, and so forth. We were each doing great work, and we occasionally came together to accomplish great things such as the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but we also missed some opportunities to achieve more by working together.
Fortunately, that is starting to change, and I can tell you that we are stronger as a result.
Last year, following the transfer of the TBI programs from the Health Resources and Services Administration to ACL and passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act, which transferred several disability programs from the Department of Education to our family, ACL created the Administration on Disabilities (AoD). AoD brought together—for the first time—federal DD, independent living, and other disability programs. While we are still learning about each other’s work, we’ve already begun benefitting from our collective knowledge.
And the same thing is happening in the states. Earlier this month, I visited Sacramento, CA where I saw many examples of the power and potential of collaboration within the disability network.
With funding from an AIDD Partnerships in Employment Systems Change Grant, the California Employment Consortium for Youth and Young Adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (CECY) is bringing together more than 45 representatives from 23 state agencies, centers, and organizations along with families and self-advocates to increase the number of youth with DD in integrated competitive employment. Together they are working to tackle bureaucratic barriers and create innovative new models.
At the DD Public Policy Conference hosted by the California chapters of The Arc and United Cerebral Palsy, I led a panel that included Disability Rights California, three University Centers on DD, the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, and California’s independent living and DD councils. Each of these programs have their own unique histories, models, and culture, yet as they spoke the connections between their programs became clear and the opportunities for collaboration seemed endless.
I also met directors from two independent living centers who are working closely with colleagues in the aging network. A majority of the people served by both centers are older adults, and the centers are working with the aging network to connect those people with services such as home modifications and meals.
Of course, bringing together aging and disability work is the reason ACL was created. Together, the disability and aging communities have a larger voice and more influence. We can be more successful advocates, more easily share expertise across our networks, and bring the partners we work with, at all levels, together.
We also benefit from collaboration beyond the aging and disability spheres by advocating for each other’s issues, building genuine coalitions across movements, and having each other’s backs. One person who is living out this principle is Frances Gracechild. Over 35 years at Sacramento’s Resources for Independent Living (RIL) she has worked in coalition with everyone from faith leaders, to labor unions, to anti-poverty groups to advance common goals.
And there are always new frontiers for collaboration. For example, the UC Davis MIND Institute is helping the next generation of doctors become better allies to people with DD with a month-long training module introducing fourth year medical students to the experiences of people with disabilities, disability culture, and community-based services and supports.
Of course, collaboration doesn’t mean we lose the unique elements of our individual missions. At ACL, we really are a multicultural organization. There are a lot of commonalities between the needs of older adults, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and people with physical and sensory disabilities. So it’s important that we all develop a better understanding of each other’s programs and issues so we can look for opportunities to work together where it makes sense. But it is just as important that we preserve, and continue to develop, the deep specific expertise we brought to the table as separate organizations.
That multicultural mindset reminds us of the critical importance of cultural and linguistic competency. Here again, our state network partners are leading the way. Disability Rights California is undertaking organization-wide efforts to include people with DD from underrepresented communities. This includes dedicated staff responsible for outreach to underserved communities, comparing client and staff demographics to Census figures, and advocacy to ensure individuals receive notices and programs plans in their native languages.
Whether working across movements or across generations, listening is essential to a “side by side” approach. Barbara Wheeler of the University of Southern California UCEDD shared an example of the dangers of not listening when organizing youth with disabilities. She notes that within the disability community, youth and adults often prioritize issues differently. Youth-organizing initiatives can falter when youth are expected to mobilize around the priorities of the adult organizers and not the issues that matter most in their own lives.
These are just a few examples of some of the great work happening in just one state and I could tell many more stories of the “side by side” approach in action all over the country.
Working side by side, across differences, won’t always be easy. It can take energy, time, and resources. And even with the best of intentions, not every attempt will lead to a resounding success.
But overall, we are strongest when we find alternatives to segregation, break down silos, and abandon our single-issue boxes.
All month, #SideBySideDD16 has been highlighting stories of people with and without disabilities side by side in the community.