Developmental disabilities

Recent estimates have shown that about one in six American children between ages 3 and 17 have one or more developmental disabilities — impairments in learning, language, physical or behavior. These conditions begin during the developmental period, can affect everyday functioning, and generally last throughout a person’s life.

The rate of developmental disabilities has been on the rise in recent years. So it’s all the more important to continue the tradition, which was made official in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan, of promoting inclusion and awareness for this group of people and provide them “both encouragement and the opportunities they need to lead productive lives and to achieve their full potential.”

Close to home

While there have been positive and significant changes in the 30 years since Reagan’s proclamation, many challenges remain for this population. According to the CDC, developmental disabilities can include autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy, hearing loss, vision impairment, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, learning or intellectual disabilities and other developmental delays.

Caroline Maguire, a personal coach based in Concord, Massachusetts, who works with children with ADHD and their families, says developmental disabilities awareness and inclusion starts with families and friends.

“Sometimes these developmental disabilities are invisible or hard for the general public to understand,” Maguire says. “For instance, one of my clients with autism had also some physical disabilities. His parents used to use a larger stroller for him to keep him safe. When he was in a wheelchair people flocked to help him; when he was in the stroller, people scoffed and often commented that the parents were coddling the child. The more families and friends can become more educated and offer their support to families with children who have developmental disabilities, the more the families gain greater acceptance and understanding.”

Get out and give back

Inclusion and awareness can be achieved in a million different and even small ways, Maguire says.

“Inclusion in school and social activities is essential,” she says. “Often, parents and schools can encourage education by having speakers about developmental disabilities to educate the student body.”

Getting more involved in the community is another great step to take, says Stewart Shear, national director of intellectual and developmental disabilities services at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health in Villanova, Pennsylvania.

“If you own a business, look for opportunities to hire someone with a developmental disability,” he says. “If individuals in your neighborhood, or your family, have developmental disabilities, find ways to connect with them. Make them feel welcome and engage with them at family gatherings or events.”

And in addition to local walks and runs, Julie L. Thompson, an assistant professor of special education at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, says local school systems often welcome volunteers to provide supports in the classroom, particularly related to academic tutoring.

There are also organizations that provide support for children with developmental disabilities in foster care by pairing them with an adult who will advocate for the child by helping them to access services, attending school meetings to advocate for their needs, and representing the child’s interests in court proceedings, she says.

“Also, the organization will provide training for volunteers to support them in accessing the skills they need to be a strong advocate for children with developmental disabilities,” Thompson says. “Often, it is difficult to find advocates for these children due to the perceptions volunteers may have that they are not equipped to provide support. But if no one does, who will?”