PARKERSBURG - March was designated National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month.
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan issued a proclamation for the first observance. The deinstitutionalization movement of the 1970s and early 1980s laid the foundation for significant social change, and the presidential proclamation called upon Americans to provide the "encouragement and opportunities" necessary for people with developmental disabilities to reach their potential.
As those citizens began living within the general community in larger numbers, programs to provide career planning, job coaching and supported employment were created. The idea that individuals with developmental disabilities could become productive members of the workforce was new to many people.
Advocates for those with developmental disabilities attended a recent West Virginia Disability Advocacy Day with Bernice Geary, legislative liaison for People First, left,; Christina Smith, executive director for The Arc of the Mid-Ohio Valley, center, and Delegate Dan Poling, D-Wood.
"There are old stereotypes of people with developmental disabilities, of how people with a developmental disability should live and how they should be; we are trying to show these individuals can do anything anyone else can do, live in society, they just may go about some things differently," said Doug Hess, communications and outreach coordinator for The Arc of the Mid-Ohio Valley.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, West Virginia ranks No. 1 in the percentage of residents who have a disability, 18.9 percent compared to a rate of 12.1 percent nationally. The percentage of people with disabilities between 18-64 who are employed is 24.3 in West Virginia compared to 32.8 percent nationally.
Officials with The Arc, which provides a variety of services and programs for individuals with disabilities and their families, said one of their goals is to promote self-advocacy.
One of those local advocates is Harvey "Buster" Smith, 31. Smith was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy at the age of 4. He is currently living in a house with a roommate and is studying business at West Virginia University at Parkersburg. One day he hopes to open a shop that has motorcycles for individuals with disabilities. He is the People First of Parkersburg's advisory board representative.
"People always told me that I can't do anything like I couldn't get a job and they also told me that I wouldn't walk. My motto is never back down from anything," Smith said about his challenges in life.
Smith said people told him he'd never finish high school or go to college.
"But I never gave up on myself because people don't know me. If they take the time to talk to me, they would see how smart and determined I am," he said.
"I have to prove to people that I can do things on my own and, yeah, I might have to do things in a little different way, but I will get it done," Smith said.
Kevin Smith with People First of Parkersburg travels around the state promoting self-advocacy for those with disabilities, and helping new chapters of People First get started.
"We emphasize putting people first and their disability second," Kevin Smith said.
He is a living example of what he promotes.
"We watch bills, and advocate at the Legislature and the federal level. We are concerned about proposed changes in Medicaid, we know cuts are coming, but we don't want them to affect those with disabilities negatively. For some of my colleagues that's all they have to live on. We watch the state and federal bills. I'm going to D.C. in the middle of April and I hope to be able to explain some of our situations and why we don't want certain cuts to the program. We know this are going to be cuts, we just hope to minimize them," Kevin Smith said.
Christina Smith, executive director with The Arc of the Mid-Ohio Valley, said the nonprofit organization has a network of more than 700 chapters across the country promoting and protecting the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and actively supporting their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetime and without regard to diagnosis.