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March is Developmental Disability Awareness Month – Spread the Word: Inclusion!

Posted on March 6, 2023

Blog by Associate and Director of Founded Ministries Mark Butler

March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, a time to promote acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities in all areas of life. Five years ago, I wrote a blog post encouraging readers to join the campaign to stop the dehumanizing “R-word” and to practice person-first language whenever possible. Disability advocates are working hard to get society to embrace another word: inclusion.

Inclusion is not something unfamiliar to most of us. It has been used for decades, encouraging institutions to ensure that everyone has a seat at the table. Diversity-Equity-Inclusion have become staples for any organization seeking to build a more just society. What worries me is that in some cases, the meaning and impact of the word inclusion can get lost even among the most compassionate people.

Far too often we think of inclusion as an attitude (“I am a welcoming person”), a program (“My parish has an elevator”), or a metric (“We have a special needs parent on our board.”) None of these ideas are bad, but they can restrict our vision and limit the radical nature of inclusion. The work of inclusion is never finished.

Inclusion should be thought of as a skill. Something that needs to be learned, practiced, and used. Like any skill, it should continue to grow and be a part of who we are.

So how can we develop the skill of inclusion? Here are some ideas:

Educate Yourself: Learning about developmental disabilities and the challenges that people with disabilities face can help you better understand and appreciate their experiences. (As the parent of two adults with Autism, I have encountered many people whose knowledge about Autism has been shaped by the movie Rain Man or disreputable internet articles.)

Listen and Communicate: Effective communication is key to building relationships and creating inclusive environments. We should listen to people with disabilities and be open to their perspectives, and also communicate clearly and respectfully with them. (Many people and even care providers talk around my son, rather than talking to him as a person.)

Create Accessible Environments: Inclusive environments are physically and socially accessible to people of all abilities and sensory capacities. This means making sure that buildings, transportation, and technology are designed to be accessible, and that social events and activities are designed to be inclusive. (My daughter had to miss school every year during “spirit week” because it caused sensory overload for her.)

Challenge Your Biases: We all have biases and assumptions that can prevent us from seeing people with disabilities as full and equal members of society. By challenging these biases and recognizing our own privilege and power, we can create more inclusive communities.

Inclusion is not only a skill that is important for creating a more just and equitable society, but it is also a fundamental principle of the Catholic faith. We believe that every person is created in the image and likeness of God, and that each person has inherent dignity and worth, regardless of their abilities or disabilities.

In his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis emphasized the need for an inclusive approach to environmental and social issues. He writes, “We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.”

Inclusion is not a one-time event or a checkbox on a to-do list. It’s an ongoing process that requires continuous learning, reflection, and action – every month of the year!

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