WATERTOWN — March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, and throughout the month Bethesda — one of the nation’s leading providers of services supporting people with developmental disabilities — will make a compelling case for including people of all abilities.

Bethesda is implementing a nationwide awareness campaign that includes a new symbol, high-profile events and opportunities for everyone to get involved.

“During March and all year, we honor the more than 6 million people in the U.S. who have a developmental disability,” said Mike Thirtle, Ph.D., president and CEO of Bethesda. “We also recognize that while progress has been made in recent years, there is so much left for all of us to do. We can make the world a better place by including people of all abilities. That’s why we’re committed to making the biggest impact we possibly can this month.”

Bethesda’s campaign kickoff included a presence at the NASCAR Cup Series-Auto Club 400 race in Fontana, Calif., on March 1, in partnership with Motor Racing Outreach. Five Bethesda “ambassadors” — people we support who are avid racing fans — had the opportunity to attend the race and spread awareness about people with developmental disabilities.

Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month was proclaimed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. The proclamation called upon all Americans to provide support and opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities to reach their potential.

During this time, the idea that individuals with developmental disabilities could be productive contributors in the workforce was relatively new and preconceptions had to be overcome. With the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, workplace discrimination against individuals with developmental disabilities became a legally punishable offense.

Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month is taking place as the number of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities continues to grow. More than 50,000 young people with autism graduate from high school each year, according to the Institute for Corporate Productivity 2019 Study.

There often is no clear path forward for these individuals after high school, and many face challenges throughout their lives:

Employment — Four out of five adults with developmental disabilities do not have a paid job in the community, according to a Delivering Jobs report. This comes at a time when most organizations are hungry for talent — but their leadership frequently simply will not consider someone with a disability, fearing the cost of accommodation or the potential that they will not be able to perform.

Housing — According to The Arc, nearly 1 million people in the U.S. with intellectual or developmental disabilities live with an aging caregiver, often a parent, putting their future at risk.

Additionally, 4.8 million people with disabilities only receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and there is no housing market in the U.S. where SSI alone will pay for a safe, decent rental unit, according to the Technical Assistance Collaborative.

Faith/community — Faith is important to more than eight in 10 people with disabilities, but only about 10 percent of faith communities offer a congregation-wide disability awareness program, according to the Collaborative on Faith & Disabilities. That often leaves people with disabilities often feeling unwelcome and isolated.

In addition, there’s a big turnover rate among the nation’s 4 million direct support professionals — individuals who provide hands-on, in-home support for people with disabilities. The turnover largely is the result of low pay tied to state Medicaid reimbursement levels, and it negatively impacts quality of life and wellbeing for individuals with disabilities.

Creating solutions

Throughout the year and across the nation, Bethesda leads the way in providing solutions for these challenges. For example, in the employment arena, Bethesda offers job-coaching services in multiple states as well as Bethesda College, a two-year education and training program at Concordia University of Wisconsin. Bethesda provides numerous innovative housing arrangements, including Shared Living and Supported Living environments, and last summer broke ground on Bethesda Cornerstone Village in Victoria, Minn., a unique residential community that will integrate people with disabilities with active adults age 55 and up.

Bethesda also is creating solutions using assistive technology to empower independence.

Bethesda employs a network of staff and volunteers to help ensure people with disabilities can experience a welcoming faith community, and regularly advocates one-on-one with influential state legislators to increase reimbursement for provided supports.

Thirtle notes that Bethesda cannot do it alone, and he is calling on people to make a personal commitment to include.

“There are so many ways people can help — simply saying hello when meeting a person with a disability, offering a job, volunteering in a residence and advocating about the issues with your lawmakers,” he said. “Every action can make a real difference.”

Building awareness and spurring action is Bethesda’s goal throughout March. Beyond the Auto Club 400, Bethesda will have a presence at Winter Jam, the nation’s largest Christian music concert series, as it travels to Fort Wayne, Ind., and Hoffman Estates, Ill.

Bethesda will further be represented at a Los Angeles Clippers game. In addition, congregation engagement will include hundreds of Bethesda Sunday presentations across the U.S. An invitation-only wrap-up celebration will be held in Minneapolis.

Introducing a new symbol

Also new this year, Bethesda is introducing a symbol for Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. It shows an engaging figure with a heart, waving a hand — to remind everyone about the need to include and that people with disabilities have many abilities they want to share.

“People with developmental disabilities are saying ‘don’t forget to include me,’” said Cindy Moon-Mogush, chief marketing and communications officer for Bethesda. “Like everyone, they are also putting their hearts into achieving their dreams. When we remember to include, we move forward together as a community.

“That is what this symbol represents,” she added. “We hope it will be widely used in the disability field, instantly recognizable and an inspiring reminder of all the possibilities that exist for people with disabilities.”

Getting involved

To learn more about Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month and Bethesda’s campaign, visit IncludeAllAbilities.com. Resources on the dedicated website include comprehensive guides for employers interested in hiring a person with a developmental disability, for congregations looking to become more inclusive, and for everyone who wishes to learn more about communicating with people who have a disability. Additional resources include:

• Facts about disabilities and a pledge to join the movement

• Access to lawmakers for advocacy purposes

• Inspiring video profiles of the Bethesda ambassadors as they prepare to attend the Auto Club 400

• And much more — check back often

Bethesda also will employ the hashtag #IncludeAllAbilities on social media and encourages everyone to use it to personally support the campaign and spread the word about the need to include.

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