Wendy Dyck, Contributor

This is the first in a series of articles that will explore the nature of developmental disability, its impact on the lives of many in our community and the resources available to help them reach their fullest potential.

Developmental disability is a term many have heard but few understand.

It describes conditions that are due to mental and/or physical impairments that cause difficulties in language, mobility, learning, and independent living and persist throughout one’s lifespan.

Few of us likely know more than one person with a developmental disability, so the diversity in that community often goes unnoticed. Consider some of the more common disabilities — autism, Down syndrome, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy, mental retardation.

Each leaves its unique stamp on an individual, challenging their ability to participate in the larger society by saddling them with social, physical or mental behaviours that just don’t fit in.

But before we get too distressed by the failures of our contemporary society, let’s take a look at the history. Be warned — it’s not pretty.

The model of asylum ‘care’ which, believe it or not was an improvement on what came before, removed people from their families and housed them in large institutions. Conditions varied, but the prevailing idea that people with developmental disabilities were deviant burdens to society, made it easy to allow de-humanizing institutional environments.

Change started in the 1950s in North America.

In 1969 a German-American researcher published a book that recognized the human needs of people with developmental disabilities and pushed for the same basic human rights as for the rest of the population. More importantly, he talked about the productive contributions that all people can make to society.

Although we have come a long way, the idea of valuing the contribution of people with developmental disabilities is still more a dream than reality. What kind of an environment would make it possible for people with developmental disabilities to flourish?

The answer to this question begins with issues that most of us take for granted:  the right to exercise choice and the opportunity to build relationships. Even today, the environment most of those with these disabilities live in severely restricts both.

The presence of meaningful, long-lasting relationships contributes immensely to helping people realize their fullest potential.

Dr. David Pitonyak, an American specialist in this field, says, “We are relational beings and the absence of meaningful relationships makes us sick.”

He quotes a colleague who observes, “We have only begun to sense the tragic wounds that so many may feel when it dawns on them that the only people relating with them — outside of relatives — are paid to do so.

“If you or I came to such a sad realization about ourselves, it would rip at our souls to even talk about it.”

Wendy Dyck is a musician and freelance writer working in the Comox Valley since 2001. She has been a regular contributor to Infocus and other magazines and wrote an arts column for CYMC in the summer of 2004. She is also an editor with seven books, both fiction and non-fiction, to her credit.


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