In 2010, Congress passed legislation changing terminology within the federal government for people with developmental disabilities. After decades of use and prompted by demands from self-advocates, the term “mental retardation” was official replaced with “intellectual disability.” Of course, just because something becomes a Federal law does not mean that change will immediately occur. In this case, many states (Florida being one) still routinely use the term “retardation.”
In a broad effort to educate the public about the need for a dramatic cultural change, a national, multi-tiered awareness campaign, “Spread the Word to End the Word” was launched. The simple call-to-action supports the elimination of the derogatory use of the r-word from everyday speech and promotes the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities. The campaign is designed to benefit everyone living with an intellectual challenge.
Regrettably, not all campaigns created and promoted by self-advocates with disabilities are fully inclusive. Much like flawed legislative action, there are sometimes unintended consequences associated with demands from disability rights activists. This generally happens when the rights of one distinct sub-group of people directly conflicts or impedes upon the rights of another sub-group. For example, the recent class action lawsuit filed in Oregon against sheltered workshops seeks to eliminate the service in its entirety. Once settled, this suit could set a national precedent.
The most positive outcome of the suit would allow for more employment opportunities and equal pay for people with disabilities. Consequently, we could expect to see many more faces of people with disabilities in private businesses. In short, this specific proposal will primarily benefit individuals on the higher end of the cognitive spectrum.
On the other hand, “success” of the same proposed legislation would simultaneously leave scores of people with developmental disabilities (particularly those with intense behavioral needs and/or those who are medically fragile) without any meaningful day activity. Such drastic action would place many vulnerable people at risk for extreme isolation and an inability to access health care services.
Accordingly, the issue of sheltered workshops remains very complicated and cannot be viewed as merely “good vs evil” or “doing the right thing.” The only “given” in the discussion on community inclusion is one’s right to access a variety of service options in the community. As day training is one of those options, more DD advocates need to recognize that this service may be the most appropriate form of training for many.
Ultimately, the individual needs of a person and his/her varying level of ability should always be the over-arching priority of a disability rights action. The greater DD community must respect the unique choices made by every single consumer, especially when a choice (like attending a sheltered workshop) differs drastically from our own.
For disability rights can only be ensured when ALL choices are protected.