Newsletter, June 2017
You may have heard of the “not in my neighborhood” mentality. It basically means that one or more people in a neighborhood resist a development because it is near their home. The mentality is often focused on industrial ventures such as landfill sites, nuclear waste repositories, and animal rendering facilities. I get that. There is a darker side of the “not in my neighborhood” mentality though. It has occurred throughout history when the target is a “type” of person moving into the neighborhood, those we think of as others. We all know how this mentality has focused its biases on people whose race, ethnic background, socioeconomic status, or religious beliefs differ from the neighborhood majority. Like most people, I wish that such discrimination would be a thing of the past. We have a long way to go to overcoming such biases. Unfortunately for people with developmental disabilities, the journey to conquering discrimination is long and just beginning.
People with developmental disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy, and trisomy 21 often face an uphill battle for public acceptance. Some of this difficulty has nothing to do with the person with the disability. It has to do with people without disabilities (myself included) and how we view disabilities. The challenges can go back to well-meaning parents telling us “don’t stare” at people with visible disabilities. We are taught from an early age that differences are something to not talk about, to look away from. Combine this with a generally low level of exposure to people with developmental disabilities and disabilities can fall into the realm of the unknown and mysterious. How do we react to the unknown? Mostly with trepidation, unease and fear. This knowledge vacuum can become filled with stereotypes that distort what a developmental disability actually is. This leads to even greater entrenchment of the “not in my neighborhood” mentality where otherwise kind and compassionate people resist accepting people with developmental disabilities in their community.
There is no easy cure to this mindset. Stereotypes and fear can best be combated with experience and knowledge. Yet, even experience and knowledge only help if we are willing to have an open mind, question our beliefs, and put them under the magnifying glass of self-reflection. We must be willing to challenge ourselves and ask, “are my current beliefs based on assumptions or facts?” We need the self-awareness and discipline to seek out facts before deciding whether someone should or should not be our neighbor.
I don’t want to paint a bleak picture that people with developmental disabilities are never accepted into neighborhoods. We’ve had some truly beautiful examples of neighborliness with the children and adults we serve in community group homes. We’ve had neighbors bring tears to our people’s eyes by coming to the door and singing Christmas carols during the holidays. We’ve had neighbors help the people we serve beautify their homes by planting flowers in their yards. The people we serve have been invited to neighborhood cookouts and garage sales. If you take one thought away from this article, I hope it is that one neighbor can make an enormous difference, for better or worse, in the lives of people with developmental disabilities who are trying to live in the community, just like you and me.
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