In my experience, most people want a connection. They want to belong to something, to be connected to others – and that’s true for people with disabilities, too. I was thinking about this topic again due to the inspirational presentation by Erik Carter of Vanderbilt University at The Arc’s Summer Leadership Institute in Philadelphia.
Although attitudes have changed, we know that we have a way to go. Carter’s research of families with children with developmental disabilities in Tennessee faith communities reported that one in three families had left a faith community because they felt that their child was not accepted. Even more striking was research of the general public in Britain (2015) which found that 67% of respondents avoid contact or panic because they feel awkward around people with disabilities.
48% reported never starting a conversation with a person who is disabled.
As part of our work, whether as family, friend, or staff, we need to support individuals with disabilities in their journeys toward belonging. The first step may be realizing within ourselves that belonging is an essential role for persons with disabilities – and that it may be more important than being employed or having a specific program to attend. We also need to find allies in our communities, many of whom may need encouragement themselves to realize there is nothing to be awkward about.
We shouldn’t let barriers or negative dynamics dissuade us. We can seek support from other families, friends, and/or advocates to help loved ones and friends continue their journey to belong.
Leo V. Sarkissian