Do you know a person with an intellectual disability?

By David Egan, NDSS DS-AMBASSADOR and a Special Olympics Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger

Earlier this month, many of us with or without disabilities were saddened and horrified by the hate crime that involved torturing a young man with an intellectual disability in Chicago. Two leading nationwide disability organizations, the National Down Syndrome Society and Special Olympics, put forward powerful statements to denounce this event.

NDSS President Sara Hart Weir stated:

“Upon learning of the incident in Chicago our thoughts and prayers go out to the victim and the family. All people, regardless of their abilities are valued members of society and deserve to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect. As the leading human rights organization for all people with Down syndrome, the National Down Syndrome Society maintains a zero tolerance policy for any bullying. It is our hope that this horrific incident can bring real change and end negative stereotypes as we strive towards full inclusion of all people with disabilities.”

Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver stated:

“Sadly, people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities are all too routinely victims of exploitation, misunderstanding and even violence. Taunting and bullying remain an epidemic for children with intellectual disabilities (ID). Violence against people with ID is usually based on misunderstanding and ignorance and is all too often hidden. Our hope is that this horrific crime will result in a teachable moment where respect for and sensitivity to the needs of people with disabilities will be taught to all young people in Chicago and across the nation.”

As an NDSS DS-AMBASSADOR and a Special Olympics Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger, I whole heartedly endorse these statements of two friends and national leaders and advocates for people with ID. My hope is that this terrible incident will invoke more than just words — that it will stimulate action that strives to build respect, dignity and inclusion in our society.

My parents have told me that when I was born in 1977, they had never met a person with an intellectual disability or Down syndrome. They did not know what to expect and now are very proud of my accomplishments. I experienced inclusive education and have had a competitive job for the past 20 years. Based on my personal story I believe that we have made some progress in the United States accepting people with intellectual challenges. There are others like me who are fully included in their communities, but that is not the case everywhere in our society. I am grateful, and in my 39 years, I have been blessed with many opportunities to succeed and be a leader, changing attitudes and perceptions while at the same time raising expectations for people like me. In spite of all these successes and social progress, and based on events in the news, people with intellectual disabilities are still vulnerable and easy to mock, bully and hurt. We are a vulnerable population that does not always have the capacity to defend ourselves and have a hard time comprehending malice because we imbue a deep sense of humanity.

In my view, we still have a long way to go to protect our human rights. I hope that not one person with a disability is hidden and with no friends. No matter our disability, we are citizens that matter. We should be valued and given the same opportunity as anyone else to pursue our dreams and reach full potential.

My clarion call to action is to stress that we need to do MORE.

I hope that you will take seriously this call to improve the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities which ultimately improves the quality of life in our communities. I want those not directly involved or exposed to disability to get to know us and see us as valued member of our society. Disability does not discriminate based on race, religion, sex, education or socioeconomic status. It touches all of us.

As a first step in making this a reality, I encourage and challenge you to meet a person with an intellectual disability, make a friend, volunteer, coach or play Special Olympics Unified, become a grassroots advocate, join a non-profit organization that supports people with intellectual disability like NDSS, Special Olympics, Best Buddies, The Arc and others that are dedicated to improve the lives of many like me. Donate, contribute your time, make the effort to learn about critical issues impacting our community and lend your voice in all sectors of our society to make a change.

As Mahatma Ghandi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world” — I am trying to live this, but I need your help. Join us in creating a world where respect and kindness prevails rather than prejudice and hate. We the people with intellectual challenges matter and we want to meet you and show you what we can do and as I have said many times: We are One of You and Not One Among You.