Marginalized members of society deserve more

Many say that in the new millennium, the next frontier in civil rights issues will be acceptance and full inclusion of homosexuals in our society. Seeing as how there are gay and lesbian student organizations at many college campuses in America, and that there are homosexual Chief Executive Officers scattered throughout the corporate sector, I would have to disagree.

Don’t get me wrong, I hope and pray that our society can move toward a fully inclusive view of homosexuals, but the way I see it, the next great frontier in civil rights lies hidden where very few people bother to look. I am talking about a sector of our population that hardly ever receives attention on the national, state or even local stage. This is a group that has no powerful voice because it cannot speak in the normal channels of mass communication in our society. Indeed, the mentally disabled remain the most common victims of prejudice and misunderstanding because the advancement of their cause depends primarily upon the willingness of others to help them.

The journey to the present for the mentally disabled community has been horrible compared to that of any other ethnic or religious group that has suffered extreme persecution. In the middle ages, people with obvious disabilities were burned at the stake because they were seen as inherently evil. In many countries today, children born with disorders such as Down’s Syndrome are killed because they are not viewed as productive members of society. During the Reagan administration, a ranking official in the Department of Education publicly put forth the idea that people with disabilities are the way they are because God is punishing them for their evil acts in a past life.

Even today, in theological circles of the religious fundamentalist movement, the mentally disabled, along with those who have AIDS or who died in the terrorist attacks in New York, are considered examples of God’s wrath visited upon the sinful.

More hurtful than the history of fear and hatred toward these people is the present situation in which many of them live. My sister has Down’s Syndrome, and this has led me to volunteer for Special Olympics and work for Access Leisure, a program that provides recreation for disabled people. She participates in both of these activities, she attends a special program at her high school, and she will probably graduate from a special education program at the local city college. She will live at home, or with a roommate like her, for the rest of her life, and she will hold a job at a grocery store or restaurant.

In the world of the mentally disabled, she is extremely lucky. She is fairly high-functioning according to the school district, which rates people who have relatively high independence skills.

Low functioning students, oftenfrom low income families, have a much drearier future ahead of them. Most will live a life of short stays at schools that provide minimal facilities and staff. At these schools, they will make little progress toward being able to take part in society to the best of their ability, not because they are not capable of this accomplishment, but because the people who are supposed to help them accomplish this do not think that they can.

Once these students are projected out of the school system, their parents will probably put them in group homes, having given up on trying to take care of their child themselves. Some group homes are run by caring individuals who understand their jobs and provide a quality environment for their clients, an environment full of outdoor activities with the goal of working toward inclusion in the outside community.

Unfortunately, such group homes are practically one in a million. A vast majority of group homes are run by people who seek to make a maximum profit off of providing minimal service to their clients. These homes are crowded and often plagued with poor hygiene practices, which the caretakers do little to prevent. Such a situation minimizes the growth potential and productivity of our disabled population and thus dehumanizes our own society.

Efforts to bring about change in the realm of rights for the disabled have very rarely had enough momentum to be extremely successful. The most successful programs for disabled people are recreational, not educational.

This divide between activity and learning increases the barrier between the disabled population and mainstream society. However, we should not underestimate the importance of recreational programs like Special Olympics, which provide an opportunity for people like my sister to shine. What we need to truly reform the special education system is a strong effort on the national level to fully fund and support education and recreation for mentally disabled persons.

The first wave of this effort has already passed under the efforts of the Kennedy family and other people who have sought social justice for a disabled sibling or relative. Very few people know that the oldest child of Joseph Kennedy was autistic, or severely mentally disabled.

Under the legislative movements of Robert and Edward Kennedy, light was shed on the horrific plight of mentally disabled persons who, up until the `60s and `70s, had nowhere to go except privately run institutions, which were completely unregulated by the government. In the worst of these cases, patients slept in dimly lit cells, which were often full of their own waste. The federalization of education and health care issues contributed greatly to positive change in the general welfare of mentally disabled citizens in this country.

However, now more than ever, we cannot be content with mediocrity. We need to establish new training methods for special education teachers, we need to hire more teachers through this method, and we need communication in our society on the national level about how to further include people with disabilities.

The real battle for reformers of the special education and recreation system lies not in the halls of Congress, but in the minds of the American people.

Members of the public must understand that people with mental disabilities are fundamentally the same as the rest of us; they have favorite bands and favorite foods, they like to wear fashionable clothes like the rest of us, and they enjoy the same qualities of life thatconnect us as human beings. They laugh, they cry and, as is true with all people, the most important thing in their lives is friendship.

It is a great national tragedy that our society often denies the basic necessity of friendship to its disabled citizens through lack of attention and outright shunning. Each and every one of us must take an active role in reaching out to the marginalized in order to bring them in from the cold.

A Jesuit priest once told me that the state of a society can be judged by the condition of that society’s poor, oppressed and otherwise marginalized citizens. If this is true, and I believe it is, then we as a society have miles to go before we sleep on the issue of rights for the disabled.

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