by Mary Jo Tesitor
In part 4 of this series the author reviewed legislation in the U.S. in the 1960s which improved medical care and removed barriers to employment and education for those with physical and mental disabilities. She then chronicled the beginning of services for those with disabilities in Las Animas and Huerfano counties.
HUERFANO — By 1986, under encouragement by the state, the Huerfano County Community Centered Board merged with Las Animas County Center for the Handicapped to become Southern Colorado Developmental Disabilities, SCDDS.
Director Duane Roy, who has been associated with SCDDS for over 30 years, has his office in Trinidad at Las Animas County Rehabilitation Center. In Walsenburg, activities are held at Walsenburg Day Services located on West 9th Street, the local branch of LACRC which also oversees the care of many disabled citizens who live independently but require some assistance.
The clients at Day Services, known as “consumers,” are forgiving and pragmatic when asked about their past. Sexual abuse, physical abuse and isolation may have happened in the past, but they are forward-looking people, wanting what anyone would want: purpose, friendships, independence and love.
Some of the women were sterilized at an early age because their parents did not want to take on the inevitable task of raising grandchildren. Now these women are happy to be aunties to families who include them in the lives of their children. Still, all are cautious around men.
The gentlemen are guilelessly affectionate, extending hands for greetings that inevitably end in hugs. Some of the brain injuries suffered by the men were caused by abuse, but one cannot enter the building without noticing the genuine happiness that emanates from each one of them as they share stories of accomplishments, hobbies, and family.
One middle-aged lady shares her story of growing up in the Colorado State Hospital, having been committed there in early adolescence because of some emotional disturbance at puberty. She recalls being mentored by older women in the facility and regrets most not having more education.
Other disabled citizens can tell tales of being “warehoused.” Usually they were educated away from their peers, not necessarily because of mental deficiency, but because their wheelchairs were considered “fire hazards” in a multi-story school or because assigning a dedicated teacher was not in the school budget.
Of course, not all disabled consumers choose to utilize Day Services. The Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvements Act of 1999 (TWWIIA) expands the availability of Medicare and Medicaid so that certain disabled beneficiaries who return to work will not lose their medical benefits. One gentleman supplements his Social Security by gathering and selling aluminum cans. Most quietly live out their lives with only minimal help from family or friends. Whether able to “contribute to society” or not, these are valuable members of our community.
If there is a lesson to be learned from this series, it is that first and foremost, the disabled among us deserve respect as persons and citizens. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature.” (CCC1930) In other words, a person’s worth cannot be measured by his or her productivity. Those who have been able to overcome the restrictions placed upon them by society and by the stigma of “disability,” whether physical, mental or developmental, are our brothers and sisters, spouses and dear friends who enrich our lives.