Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month (DDAM) has been celebrated annually since 1987 to bring attention to the lives and contributions of individuals with developmental disabilities and celebrate the critical work of the agencies that support them. In 2023, we are still facing the ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the lives of individuals with disabilities and their families. This year is an important time to raise awareness about the challenges and successes of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and the innovative ways to empower this community of people and their advocates.
A Look Back at the Movement
Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month was first established by the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities (NACDD), which is a nonprofit organization that works to improve the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities and their families. Founded in 1970, the NACDD is a network of state councils on developmental disabilities that works to advocate for policies and programs that promote inclusion, independence, and self-determination for individuals with disabilities.
DDAM has grown in scope and impact over the years. Today, it is celebrated across the U.S., with events and activities such as workshops, trainings, art exhibits, and community outreach activities. The NACDD continues to play a central role in coordinating and promoting Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month activities by providing inspiration and resource support to the many organizations that contribute to the annual campaign. Together, we can raise awareness of the experiences of individuals with developmental disabilities and promote inclusive practices in schools, workplaces, and communities.
Evolving Priorities That Put People First
Over the years, the priorities of Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month have evolved to reflect changing social, economic, and political contexts. Some of the key priorities include:
- Inclusion and integration: One of the key goals of DDAM has been to promote the inclusion and integration of individuals with developmental disabilities in all aspects of society, including education, employment, and social activities.
- Access to services and supports: DDAM has also prioritized efforts to increase access to services and supports for individuals with developmental disabilities, including health care, housing, and transportation.
- Self-advocacy and empowerment: Another priority of DDAM has been to empower individuals with developmental disabilities to become self-advocates and to take control of their lives.
- Technology and innovation: DDAM has also emphasized the role of technology and innovation in improving the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities, including the use of assistive technology and telehealth.
- Equity and social justice: More recently, DDAM has placed greater emphasis on promoting equity and social justice for individuals with developmental disabilities, recognizing the systemic barriers and injustices they face.
Continuing the Campaign After COVID-19
Despite the challenges of the past couple of years, providers have continued to show remarkable resilience and dedication to their communities. Many have successfully transitioned their programs to online platforms, offering one-on-one Zoom sessions, virtual day programs, group activities, and remote career development to keep individuals engaged.
However, the lack of access to vaccines for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and Direct Service Providers (DSPs) remains a concern when we think about future vaccination efforts for other diseases. While there have been strong advocacy efforts from groups like ANCOR, many states have not explicitly prioritized individuals with disabilities for the earliest phases of vaccine distribution, and some states have not designated DSPs as essential workers. This lack of access to vaccines puts individuals with disabilities at greater risk while exacerbating the already existing shortage of direct care professionals and leading to burnout among existing staff members.
One of the top priorities for Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month 2023 is to advocate for better health care access and support for individuals with developmental disabilities. Despite advances in medical research and technology, individuals with developmental disabilities often face significant barriers to accessing quality health care services. Many struggle to find health care providers who are knowledgeable about their specific needs and may face discrimination or lack of accommodations when seeking medical treatment.
Equity in Education and Employment
Another priority for Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month 2023 is to support inclusive education policies and practices that promote the success of individuals with developmental disabilities. Inclusive education refers to the practice of including individuals with disabilities in regular classrooms alongside their peers without disabilities. This approach has been shown to benefit both students with and without disabilities, as it promotes social inclusion and academic achievement for all students.
Ending bullying in schools for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities requires a multi-faceted approach that involves everyone and promotes understanding, empathy, and respect for all students. Teachers and staff must receive training on how to recognize and respond to bullying behavior, while students must learn the importance of kindness and acceptance. Parents and caregivers must be involved in this effort and work together with schools to ensure that students with disabilities are protected and supported. By working together, we can create a school culture that values and celebrates diversity and ensures that every student feels safe and respected.
In the employment sector, the population of employees with disabilities continues to grow. According to the Office of Disability Employment Policy, persons with a disability make up 39.6% of the labor force participation rate as of January 2023, compared to 37.8% in 2022. DDAM 2023 prioritizes promoting access to employment opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment rate for individuals with disabilities is significantly lower, hovering around 21%, than for individuals without disabilities, which is approximately 65%.
Here are some ways companies can support DDAM and encourage continued fair employment practices:
- Host a training led by a person with a developmental disability or an expert in the field.
- Watch a TED talk or film on the subject as a company priority.
- Organize a community event in partnership with a ID/DD agency to include your local community.
- Ensure your staff are knowledgeable about state and national policies on hiring and retention of people with disabilities, including supplying reasonable accommodations and ensuring facility supports.
- Use CSR budget to support ID/DD nonprofits.
- Wear orange, which is the official color of the campaign.
- Use the NACDD hashtags on your company’s social media posts to show solidarity with the community.
Innovative Community Supports
Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month 2023 prioritizes promoting inclusive community engagement for individuals with developmental disabilities. This includes supporting community-based programs and services that provide individuals with developmental disabilities opportunities to participate in social and recreational activities, as well as advocating for policies that promote accessibility and inclusion in public spaces and events.
Peer support services for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities are also becoming increasingly popular. This form of support involves individuals with similar experiences and backgrounds providing emotional, social, and practical assistance to each other. Peer support can promote self-advocacy, empowerment, and inclusion, making it an effective way to better serve individuals with developmental disabilities.
More research and programs are realizing that art and other innovative methods can unlock the full potential of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Creative expression through art, music, dance, and other mediums can provide a unique way for individuals with disabilities to communicate, promote cognitive and emotional development, enhance social skills, and improve overall well-being. Technology-based tools and assistive devices can also provide greater access to information and communication, allowing individuals to participate more fully in their communities. Innovative approaches to education, therapy, and community engagement can help individuals with disabilities reach their full potential and lead meaningful lives.
Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month has been an important platform for raising awareness of the experiences and needs of individuals with developmental disabilities and for promoting policies and programs that support their full inclusion and participation in society. Moving forward, collective advocacy for fair treatment from government policy, access to technology, and equitable health care resources are crucial to ensuring that vulnerable communities receive the support they need.
The pandemic has shone a light on the inequalities in our health care and economic systems, and hopefully, it will lead to significant investment initiatives that better support individuals with disabilities and their families.