Do you want to do something to help give people with different needs an opportunity to be more socially included in your community? Look into volunteer opportunities at Best Buddies, Autism Society of America, or Down Sydrome Foundation (October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month!). Or do a search for local groups who promote friendship for people with different needs, such as All Friends Network in Florida, or Positive Community Connections on Long Island.
Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD 10.14.21
Community inclusion has long been a goal for people with different needs and those who support them. An overview of disabilities by the CDC shows that 26% of the adult population in the United States has some form of disability. That is 61 million people in all. Of these, 13.7% have a mobility impairment, 10.8% have cognitive impairments, 5.9% have hearing impairments and 4.6% have vision impairments. 6.8% have difficulty with independent living and 3.7% have difficulty with basic self-care skills.
Over the past several decades, there has been a great deal of progress within our systems to promote inclusion, such as less reliance on segregated classrooms in the school, better workplace opportunities for people who don’t fit into a certain employment box, and better accessibility features in public spaces. All of the work that has been done by people with different needs along with those who support them has been fantastic, and our world today is a much better place for inclusion than it was 30 years ago.
In addition to increased opportunities, we have seen significant changes in community awareness and acceptance for individuals with different needs. Across the country we have organizations whose focus is to promote awareness and inclusion, such as Autism Speaks, The National Down Syndrome Society, and The Arc. There are movies and television series that showcase life with different needs, including Love on the Spectrum, Born This Way, Raising Tourette’s, and Atypical. Placing these shows in the mainstream helps to create awareness and acceptance in our communities.
Despite these improvements and increased awareness, people with diverse abilities often continue to struggle to fit into the world comfortably. What are some things that we, as members of our communities, can be doing to help improve opportunities for inclusion?
Start by looking at the gifts you have in your own life – gifts of time, gifts of talent, gifts of financial resources. How do you use these gifts? For the most part, people use these gifts regularly to help themselves and their families, prioritizing the people closest to themselves. For example, if you have a gift of some free time, you will likely use that time to do something you enjoy, with family, friends, or time to yourself. Enjoying and appreciating what you have in the way of time, talent, and money is vital to your well-being and to help you stay connected to those who are important to you in your life. While I strongly encourage everyone to do more to use their gifts to improve their own lives and the lives of those close to them, I would also challenge people to look at some ways they can give back for the sake of others in the community.
With so many people in need and so many causes, each of us has a multitude of ways to give back to our communities. I could easily go through the attributes of a number of causes, but today our focus is inclusion for people with different needs, specifically, those with intellectual disability or neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. These individuals are often left out socially, and have a much higher rate of unemployment than the general population. In addition, social isolation is a chronic problem. 24% of adults who have intellectual and neurodevelopmental differences state that they do not feel that they have people they can confide in comfortably.
So, what can you do?
Start with your gifts of time and talent. If you were to carve out even one hour a week to either spend time with someone who has different needs, or to volunteer at a local organization who supports people with different needs, you could make a big difference. There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer at larger events also, including fundraisers, social events and other activities. Some examples include Night to Shine, a red-carpet event that takes place once a year in towns and cities around the world for people with different needs, and Els for Autism events that take place throughout the year. Consider also how some of your own skills and talents may be used to help – are you good at organization? If so, helping with fundraisers may the the thing for you. Are you confident with your social skills and could you help someone with issues related to friendship? Maybe spending time with people who are socially isolated is where you can best use your talent to help with inclusion.
Now, think about your gifts of financial and material resources. With this, the most obvious thing is to find a good organization or foundation who supports community inclusion and opportunities for people with unique needs. There are hundreds of these organizations in our country to choose from – some with a national focus and others that have more impact on local experiences. Other ways to use financial and material gifts to help with inclusion may include investing resources into providing more opportunities for people. For example, if you own or manage a business, perhaps you could consider committing to hiring one or more people with different needs to help out in your business. Not only do you help by providing a chance for gainful employment, but you also provide opportunities for social engagement and interaction that can be severely lacking for many people with different needs.
So if you are looking to make a difference in our ever-changing and complex world, take some time to consider making a difference for some people who still need our help and support to be meaningfully included in our communities. You may find yourself amazed at the impact you can have for the benefit of others.