Beginning in 1992, people from all corners of the globe have recognized United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This year scheduled for Dec. 3, the theme is “Empowering Persons with Disabilities and Ensuring Inclusiveness and Equality,” a profound message for individuals, families, community stakeholders, and agencies to consider.
The idea of enabling those with disabilities to experience a greater sense of equality and inclusion is also embedded in the United National 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which promises to “leave no one behind” as part of its quest for a more peaceful circle of humanity.
While there is still much to be done, when we consider these goals in context of our own Hudson Valley region, I think we can all feel great pride at how far we’ve come.
It was only about 46 years ago when Geraldo Rivera uncovered the gross neglect, inhumane conditions, and outright abuse occurring in Willowbrook State School, just a few hours away from here on Staten Island. The groundbreaking report broke hearts, but also served as a catalyst for a national conversation about human rights in context of those with disabilities.
Since that time, a movement toward deinstitutionalization has opened countless doors and has given the more vulnerable among us an opportunity to realize their potential and live happy, productive lives.
Here in the mid-Hudson Valley, agencies have provided people with educational programming, vocational training, community integration, and safe, nurturing residential opportunities. We have seen our Dutchess County Government develop and successfully manage a “Think Differently” initiative, which, according to the website, seeks to change the way we relate to people with special needs. We have seen community leaders step up to serve on boards and donors provide private funding. We have seen businesses, organizations, and now, for the first time in our region, an entire community (the Village of Rhinebeck) put time and resources into training required to become designated as official Autism Supportive Environments. We have seen staff so dedicated to the people they serve that they’ve taken on additional part-time jobs to supplement their income — just to continue working in a field known for low pay and high turnover. We have watched people with disabilities secure jobs in small businesses and large corporations, volunteer in food pantries and soup kitchens, and enjoy the myriad cultural and recreational activities that abound in our area. And we have seen their families experience the joy of knowing that their loved ones are, indeed, contributing members of society.
We still, however, have a long way to go. As we commemorate United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities this year, I urge you to get involved. Find ways to become more inclusive, to support better funding, and to empower people with disabilities by giving them the equal rights and sense of belonging that they deserve.